BAGHDAD — Iraq's championship national soccer team came home Friday to a chaotic private welcoming ceremony that stood in sharp contrast to the public embrace the team had received outside this war-torn country.
Their plane hours late, the team was loaded onto a bus at Baghdad International Airport and rushed at dusk by secure convoy to the Green Zone, where they were ushered past an honor guard and into a private party at the home of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
A few hundred soccer fans managed to catch a glimpse of them at the airport, and several scores more rushed to see them in the Green Zone, waving flags and chanting a line from a recent song about the team.
But there was no personal view for millions of Iraqis who'd celebrated when the team won its first Asia Cup by defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0.
The scorer of the winning goal, Younis Mohammed, was missing. He declined to make the trip for fear he'd be killed if he returned to Iraq. At least two other players also stayed away.
The team's homecoming contrasted sharply with celebrations elsewhere. In Dubai, thousands of Iraqi refugees had celebrated at a ceremony hosted by that emirate's leader. In Jordan, still more Iraqi refugees had their photos snapped with the players during a celebration that included a serenade by Iraq's best-known singer at a raucous hotel party.
An honor guard and marching band had set up at 4:30 p.m. to welcome the team to Maliki's house. But the team, delayed by unspecified travel problems, didn't arrive and didn't arrive. The band and honor guard waited for five hours, sipping soft drinks and standing at attention every time they heard distant sirens. They played "Mawtani," My Homeland, an unofficial Iraqi anthem, and "Bring the Cup, Bring It," an Iraqi song written during the championship.
"It's hot and they're late, but we're happy for the Iraqi people," said Pvt. Hassan Gholam, 24. "We're eager to see them. They're at the top of our thoughts."
But Gholam never saw them. When the bus finally arrived, the team was quickly ushered into a private party with ministers and politicians and their children.
The invitees included two people who'd had family members killed and injured in bombings that ripped through Iraqis celebrating the team's semi-final victory over South Korea. Players hugged them in sympathy.
The celebration was televised on Iraqi television, but that hardly satisfied disgruntled fans elsewhere in the Iraqi capital.
"This celebration should have taken place in the streets so that these boys could see with their own eyes how happy we are with their victory," said Ziad Mahdi, 61, who watched the party on television.
He said politicians were trying to bask in the team's success to cover up their own inabilities to resolve the country's difficulties. "They couldn't accomplish anything in their own fields, politics, economics, security or reconstruction, for example, so they are desperate to be given credit for any success — even if it is a football game," he said.
Some said the private celebration filled them with sadness.
"I saw celebrations in Dubai and Amman, and I wished I were there," said Faisal Waleed, 32. "It is so sad we can't do the same for them in Baghdad. This is misery."
Others said any celebration was inappropriate in a country where violence has become commonplace, though on Friday police reported no car bombs, mortar attacks or roadside bombs in the capital. A relatively few — 13 — unidentified corpses were found throughout Baghdad.
Still Abu Ali was in no mood to celebrate. A week ago, he lost six relatives in a car bomb that ripped through four homes and two commercial buildings in his Karrada neighborhood. The explosion killed more than 60, police said, and the neighborhood still had no electricity or running water on Friday.
"You can't celebrate when funeral tents are everywhere," Abu Ali said.
Plans for the team were uncertain. One government official said the team would stay in the Green Zone for three days. Another said a celebration would be held at the Green Zone's Al Rashid Hotel. It's off limits to most Iraqis.
( McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)