x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Milutinovic: the Serb who united Iraq

Football can cement friendships and Bora Milutinovic has built a team who can bring happiness to a nation.

Iraqi defender Mohammed Ali Kareem fights for the ball with New Zealand Leo Bertos during the Fifa Confederations Cup.
Iraqi defender Mohammed Ali Kareem fights for the ball with New Zealand Leo Bertos during the Fifa Confederations Cup.

The beam from Bora Milutinovic's face appears long before he actually pops his head around the corner. It is a chilly night in Cape Town but the magnetism of one of world football's best-known faces warms the air. Bora is a consummate pro, working the crowd of journalists like a politician on the hustings. There is peck of cheek here, a hearty handshake there and always a jocular response to an incessant whirl of questions. Not too much substance but those quirky sound bites the media are looking for

He has seen and done it all before, the first man to coach five teams at the World Cup and now taking on a quest of a different kind - Iraq's football team, the surprise Asian champions from two years ago and now members, albeit for a two week period, of an elite group competing at the Confederations Cup in South Africa. A warm-up game against Poland ends in a credible draw and with the kick off to the tournament just days away the mood is buoyant.

Fast forward two weeks and the obvious disappointment is etched on the faces of the Iraqi players as they make their way back to the dressing room at Ellis Park. A gloomy air pervades in stark contrast to the spring in the step of just seven days earlier. Iraq's hopes of reaching the semi-finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup had been shattered by a stubborn New Zealand side and the team limped out of the tournament, tantalisingly close to the last four. But despite the fact that they had failed to score a goal, there is a feeling that their African safari had been a tremendous success.

The manner in which the players conducted themselves, on and off the pitch, was a credit to the Iraqi nation, and although there were some dramas along the way, the Lions of Mesopotamia were a proud bunch as they boarded a flight leaving from Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport with their campaign over. To fully understand the story of their Confederations Cup campaign, you need to go back to April this year and the appointment of the highly experienced Milutinovic as coach.

The Serbian is a master of the bluff, a skilled operator who has worked in Europe, North and Central America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and the perfect man to lead Iraq to just their second major Fifa tournament after the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Iraq needed a figure-head, a man who had seen it all before, who had experience of facing the world's media and who knew how to set up a side against top-class international opposition.

The hiring of Milutinovic proved a real coup for the Iraq Football Association and he would provide inspirational, shielding his players from the media spotlight and providing intelligent answers to a probing, curious, and at times confused, international media. It would cost the team their assistant coach, Radhi Shnishel, who resigned at what he called his protest at the manner in which Milutinovic conducted his training sessions, but the more likely explanation is that Shnishel was desperately disappointed not to be given the job himself after taking on a caretaker role following Jorvan Vieira's sacking in February.

Shnishel had dumped Iraq's more experienced players in favour of local talent during his brief reign, questioning their loyalty to the national jersey. But the international savvy of Milutinovic knew all too well that in order to make an impact on the tournament, he needed them back. And so the side landed in South Africa with their strongest possible squad and a healthy sense of optimism. This was built on during their pre-tournament preparations in Cape Town.

Ikamva, the training complex of Ajax Cape Town, a feeder club to Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam, would be their base for the following week as they prepared for an international friendly against Poland. It was a rare match on African soil for Iraq and a first outside the familiarity of the north African countries Libya and Egypt. The match against Poland was played at the University of the Western Cape stadium, a venue not used to professional football, but an adequate facility that produced a crowd of 3,000, the maximum allowed into the ground. Tickets were handed out free by the organisers and many curious onlookers, as well as some Cape Town-based Iraqi fans, turned out on a chilly evening. It was here that we got an insight into the way Milutinovic wanted to play in the tournament - cautious, organised and difficult to break down.

The final score barely mattered, but the 1-1 draw was thoroughly deserved for the Iraqis, who had the better chances in the game against a Polish side who were already dreaming of their beach holidays in the Bahamas. The goal came from the lively Mahdi Karim, but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for one patron who entered the stands late with a Palestinian flag, a timely reminder that football and politics are never far apart.

"I am very satisfied and we played well," Milutinovic said after the match. "This was good preparation for the Confederations Cup. We have been treated well in Cape Town and now we head to Johannesburg for the tournament. We hope the good treatment continues." It would be highly insensitive to try to compare the situation in Iraq with that of South Africa, but the latter does have a kind of inner turmoil that Iraqis might find familiar.

South Africa is a land of extremes, with tremendous wealth living side-by-side with crippling poverty. In such a scenario, where "haves" and "have-nots" co-exist on a daily basis, a criminal element can take advantage of the situation. Official statistics suggest 50 people die a violent death per day in South Africa, a figure that suggests, in a way, the country is at war with itself. It is against this backdrop that the war in Iraq became the first topic out of the mouths of people as they met the Iraqi team. Politeness from the squad soon turned to dismay as the same questions were repeated, and it became a frustrating side issue to the football.

There was also a special interest in the exploits of the late Uday Hussein, the son of Saddam Hussein, who allegedly ran the Iraq Football Association with an iron fist. "I get this a lot when people ask me about the former president or the son of the president," midfielder Nashat Akram said. "I am a football player. I just like talking about the football." But at the same time, team captain Younis Mahmoud was quick to recognise the importance of his and the team's role at the prestigious global tournament.

"We now have a mission we are ready for and I think that mission is beyond the football," Mahmoud said. "We want to make our people happy because they are suffering in war and conflict. And that is why we feel physically and mentally prepared to help our people. This is our weapon to help the Iraqi people psychologically and spiritually beyond these difficulties." Both also stressed they were playing for a single Iraq, not one divided along religious lines. This is where the similarities begin with South African, where it is race, and not religion, that has divided its people. "The Iraqi team is based on one Iraqi people. We have represented the country before and we want to represent all sects. We have players from the Shi'ite majority and we have Kurds, but we are playing in the name of the country."

About 100 fans turned up to the first day of training in Johannesburg and were vocal in their support, something which eased the mood of Akram. "Really, I'm surprised," he said. "It's the first time I've come here and it's a really nice country, really nice people. I'd like to say, 'Thank you,' to them." The opening match of the tournament against South Africa at Ellis Park was a tense affair, mostly from the home side, who seemed to freeze now they knew the world was watching. Iraq were set up to defend and did so manfully, though they needed the brilliance of goalkeeper Mohammed Kassid to keep them in the match, that and South African striker Bernard Parker who sensationally and unintentionally blocked a goal-bound effort from a teammate on the line late in the game.

"We try everything to win the game," Milutinovic said, though it was obvious a point was the ultimate goal. South African goalkeeper Itumeleng Khune did not have a save to make in 90 minutes. Defence was again the priority for the next encounter against European champions Spain. But it was not just the chilly weather that was putting chills down the players' spines, Spain had embarrassed New Zealand 5-0 in their opening fixture, taking their foot off the peddle after scoring four goals inside the first 24 minutes.

The side trained at the Seisa Ramabodu Stadium, home ground for Bloemfontein Celtic, a top-flight side in South Africa with arguably the best fans in the country. The welcome was again warm and the relaxed atmosphere seemed to rub off on the players, who spent time in groups, milling about the hotel. Brothers Hawar and Halkard Mulla Mohammed were enjoying some rare family time, with the former plying his trade in Cyprus with Anorthosis Famagusta and the latter home in Iraq with Sulaymaniyah. This time Milutinovic said he had no qualms in admitting a draw would be an excellent result.

"Iraq must not be afraid, this is one of the biggest challenges for us," he said. "We are lucky to here, lucky to be playing Spain. I will be happy to play a negative game and get a point." As it turned out, the Iraqis put up a sterling defensive performance, allowing just a David Villa goal in what was termed a glorious defeat that won respect around the world. Coupled with South Africa's less-than-impressive 2-0 win over New Zealand, it would mean a win in their final match against the All Whites would more than likely see them into the semi-finals.

What was evident at this match as well was the support the Iraqis were receiving from other Middle Eastern nations. Fans from Jordan, Egypt and Syria were in attendance, all lending their support to "our Arab brothers", as well as a smattering of supporters who had made the trip from Baghdad, which included members of parliament. The team returned to Johannesburg, and the Ruimsig Stadium, falling back into the familiar pattern of traffic and training, before their fixture against New Zealand at Ellis Park. This match was deemed "unsellable" by many, between two teams who had tiny support in the country and being played at the same time as hosts South Africa took on Spain, and so it is a credit to the 23,295 people who did turn out to watch.

But it was a frustrating night for the Iraqis, who were looking for a first victory in over a year since a 2-1 triumph in China in June 2008. In the end, a win by two goals would have been enough to see them into the semis, but perhaps the defensive pattern of the first two games was difficult to break and when the team needed to push forward in search of goals, they couldn't find the right rhythm and the match finished 0-0.

The general feeling among the players was one of pride. Milutinovic, ever the diplomat, had the final word, saying his side were "the moral victors" and ending his three-month spell with the side by reminding them that football is not, as Bill Shankly once famously said, more important than life or death. "I wish the boys all the best for the future, they have shown they have a lot of talent and tactical awareness, but what I really wish them is freedom and the chance to live happy and peaceful lives."