x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bringing Asian Cup joy to war-torn Iraq

Jorvan Vieira, who managed the team to an Asian Cup win, tells Ahmed Rizvi of his tumultuous assignment.

The Brazilian Jorvan Vieira did not have it easy while managing Iraq to their Asian Cup triumph four years ago. But the Iraqi people, he says, deserve his respect and attention.
The Brazilian Jorvan Vieira did not have it easy while managing Iraq to their Asian Cup triumph four years ago. But the Iraqi people, he says, deserve his respect and attention.

It has been four years since Jorvan Vieira guided Iraq to their Asian Cup win. Since that triumph, the bespectacled Brazilian has spent his time coaching Sepahan in Iran and building an academy in Portugal, before returning to the dugout with Kalba in the UAE Pro League.

His association with Iraqi football in that period has been almost nil - there was a brief five-month return to lead the "Lions of Mesopotamia" at the Gulf Cup in Oman - but Vieira still enjoys a cult status among the country's football fans.

"To tell you a fact, I don't need to go back to Iraq to receive a kiss or Salam Alaikum," he said. "We get that everywhere. For example, the other night we were walking around in Dubai Mall and many Iraqi people, they recognised me. They come to see me, to talk to me, to take a photo with me. It is an honour for me because I am just a simple football coach. We are very proud to receive this kind of a reaction from those people.

"Once we were at the Dubai Marina to drink some coffee, a guy, an Iraqi living in Canada, came running: 'Mr Vieira, it is you. Oh I live in Canada and I am waiting every day until five in the morning to watch the [2007 Asian Cup] matches on TV. Oh thank you very much.'

"You can see the way he is talking with me, with happiness and pride, and I am not Iraqi. But for them, I am one of them.

"This is fantastic. This is the best prize we can receive, this is the best salary you can receive.

"Wherever I go, people recognise me. The other day, a team from Iraq played Al Nasr. I was there to watch the game. One member of the Nasr staff come to me: "Mr Vieira, oh I am happy to see you. How are you? I am Iraqi.'

"You know, when they say I am Iraqi, finish…"

Vieira, 57, takes a long pause as he completes that sentence, his mind wandering back to those magical moments of July 2007, to a fairy tale that has few parallels in the world of sport.

When Vieira took over the reins of the team, just two months before the start of the 2007 Asian Cup, Iraq was in turmoil.

Dozens were dying every day in the war-ravaged country; sectarian strife and militancy were on the ascendancy, and respect for life was as low as it can be.

Sportsmen were not safe from the violence either. In 2006, the national tennis coach was killed and Olympic officials were kidnapped. The country's cycling coach also lost his life and a member of the Olympic football team had disappeared from outside his house and was never seen again.

Vieira's predecessor, Akram Ahmed Salman, had also stepped down amid reports of death threats, and the Brazilian's assistant was forced to flee Baghdad following threats. His car was stolen and he was told leave or get killed.

Given the circumstances, there was little optimism as Vieira assembled his squad in Jordan. They struggled to find proper grass pitches to train on, but the bigger problem for the coach was the interference from the football federation officials.

"In the beginning they tried to push us, to choose this and this player," Vieira said. "With me, it doesn't work. So I made some enemies inside the federation.

"They did not have the time to change me [before the Asian Cup], that's another thing. They had brought me only two months before. It is complicated to bring a coach, kick him out and bring another one.

"My conduct as a coach was professional and correct. So they did not have any reason to kick me out and justify it with the players.

"In the Asian Cup, when we drew against Thailand in the first match, for the second match against Australia we knew they had prepared three Iraqi coaches, in Jordan and Iraq, to replace me if we lose that match. But those coaches had to stay back in Iraq and Jordan to watch the rest of the matches on TV."

Vieira's Lions bounced back to crush Australia 3-1 in their second game and a draw with Oman saw them through to the knock-out stages.

In the quarter-finals they defeated Vietnam 2-0 and booked their spot in the final with a 4-3 win on penalties over South Korea.

Baghdad erupted with joy after that game. People of all creeds and cultures poured out on to the streets to celebrate the moment.

However, some of the militants were not happy to see the joy and unity and a suicide-bomber targeted the revellers, killing more than 50.

The players were shocked and a team meeting was held to decide whether they should carry on and play Saudi Arabia, the three-time champions, in the final on July 29, 2007.

The meeting went on until the early hours of the morning and the players, each of whom had lost a family member during their nation's troubles, decided not to let their countrymen down.

"They said, 'If we win, there will be more killing,'" Vieira said. "'If we lose there will be more killing; and if we pull out there will be more killing. At least if we stay on and win, we might be able to bring some happiness into people's lives.'"

"Four days before we came to the final, my wife's brother was killed," Noor Sabri, the goalkeeper who was the hero of the semi-final win, said at that time.

"We have to struggle. We know we are struggling inside Iraq and we are struggling to do our best on the playing field.

"It is a very modest thing we can give to our people, but we have to show them we are sharing all what we are achieving here."

Hawar Mulla Mohammed, a Kurdish midfielder, had lost his stepmother in the violence just before the start of the tournament.

"Everyone knows the current circumstances in Iraq," he said at the time. "We've managed to unify the Iraqi people when we win. Even when a curfew was imposed by the authorities, Iraqis went out on the streets and in cafes to watch the matches.

"All of these things are important for us and encourage us to achieve and bring happiness to our people."

Encouraged by the overwhelming support and unified for a cause, Vieira and his men stayed and delivered on their promise, with Younis Mahmoud, the captain, scoring the only goal of the final in the 72nd minute.

Tears flowed freely from the players after the game as joy erupted back home. Vieira admits getting goose bumps when he thinks back of those times.

"Iraq was very special," said Vieira, who embraced Islam in 1989 and married a Moroccan woman.

"As you know, at that time the conflict [inside Iraq] was very hot, I mean on the political side and the religious side.

"The Iraqi people were suffering at that time. It was a very bad time for them. Many people died everyday for nothing. 'Kill this one', car bombs … it was a very complicated time.

"From an emotional side, it [the Asian Cup] was very important for us because we knew our target.

"We knew it very well at that time, the target was very difficult because you are not working with only one national team, a group of football players, but you are working for one nation.

"And you know the nation expects more from you, they want more from you because they just want to smile.

"They don't want anything else - no money, nothing. They just need to smile. We had a promise with the Iraq people that we will work to win, to give a smile to them. Thank God, we could deliver."

Magical, fairy tale and all sorts of adjectives have been used to describe that triumph. Vieira, however, gets offended by any mention of them.

"Yeah, I live in Africa and I have some people making some magic spells for me," he said. "It's not true. It's not magic, it's work. It is the result of hard work.

"The team was not the problem. They have good players, with quality and talent. But the team, they were not well prepared.

"We had to make so many changes … mental changes, tactical changes. The time was very short, but we could do a bit because the players were very accepting.

"That is a very positive point with the Iraqi players. It is a pleasure to work with them. They like to work, they are strong, they support all kind of changes and never complain. This helps us a lot in doing our job."

Vieira, who has now spent 38 years working in the Arab world, also had to make sure that the sectarian conflict did not reach the dressing room and that his players stayed united. He imposed a ban on any discussion of religion, war and politics within the team, and later extended it to the media.

"I don't know whether each of you is Sunni or Shia or Kurdish … and I don't want to know. That is what I told them," Vieira said. "I told them I cannot change the bad things, but we have to work united for our objectives. It is the national team, we have to work and we work for the Iraqi people. Arab, Kurdish, Shia, Sunni or Christians - they are Iraqis."

After the Asian Cup win, Vieira was bestowed an Iraqi passport, extending his citizenship to four countries, Brazil, Portugal and Morocco being the others. He has gone back to Baghdad a few times and denies reports of receiving death threats.

"Never, I move in Iraq without any problems," he said. "Under protection, but we can feel the people like us, love us and they respect us.

"Sometimes they just want to come near us to talk with us, to take one photo or to just touch us.

"So, no, I never had any problems. Never, never, never did we received any kind of threats.

"The Iraqi people deserve all my respect, all my attention. I am proud that I could realise something very important for one nation."

 

arizvi@thenational.ae