Yesterday, in a brief reprieve from the harsh realities of occupation, the Iraqi people celebrated victory as their national team, who were overwhelming underdogs, managed to
A far cry from a few months ago when in April mired in controversy, strife, and general frustration (I think for obvious reasons), the team hired Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira. Only seven weeks prior to the start of the Asia Cup, Vieira a convert to Islam accepted the job after three previous candidates rejected the position after receiving death threats, his own assistant could not come to Baghdad because he received threats that his son would be kidnapped. However, Vieira, who has a doctorate from France in Sports Sciences and speaks seven languages, galvanized his team and had them prepare for the Asia Cup in Amman, Jordan. The team is made up of all three major religious and ethic groups in Iraq: Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurds, and he managed to unite them under his calm and professional leadership. Vieira is no stranger to coaching in the Middle East, he assisted Jose Faria and led a plucky Morocco to its second World Cup in 1986. While at Mexico '86, they became the first African team to win their group and advance to the second round, a group which included England, Portugal and Poland losing a close second round match to the eventual runner-up West Germany.
The 54 year-old Vieira has coached a number of club and U20 national teams in the Middle East, and despite cobbling barely enough players (six) just six weeks prior to the Asia cup to start a training session, his real work has been in attempting to unify the hearts and minds of his players. Watching the on-the-pitch celebration, the lines between Sunni, Shia, Kurdish were blurred by tears of joy and disbelief. A dream run if there was ever one, undefeated and only conceding 2 goals during play, the Iraqis also handed pre-tournament favorite, the Socceroos of Australia a stunning 3-1 defeat on their way to their first Asia Cup title.
The post-tournament press conferences revealed the good work that Vieira and the rest of the Iraqi National Team staff have done in promoting team unity. Nashat Akram, a midfielder and man-of-the-match winner, proclaimed that this victory sent one message to the rest of the world, "The message is that there is only one Iraq, Iraq belongs to all its sects and all its people." Captain Mahmoud suggested less positively yet with the same nationalistic bravado that he wanted America out, "Today, tomorrow or the day after tomorrow." State television minutes after the victory reported that Nouri Al-Maliki, the recently much maligned and embattled Shi'a Prime Minister of Iraq, would reward each player with $10,000 dollars (Iraqi). Unfortunately, many of the players cannot return to collect that reward since some insurgents apparently do not like soccer and have threatened them or their family if they returned to the country. Also in a wise and prudent move, Vieira has announced that he would step down as head coach in a press conference after the victory, comments amusingly reminiscent speech given by Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln way back in 2003, "I have worked my best to give happiness to the Iraqi people, to bring a warm smile to their lips and my mission is accomplished."
One victory in Central Jakarta will not lead to lasting unity, but as a general believer in the salvific power of sport; it is nice to know that the Iraqi people for the past month have had something to distract them, and that something, for once, didn't let them down.