Loading... Please wait...

10 years on

Posted by

10 years on from the surprising and shock win for Iraq in the 2007 Asian Cup, James Montague looks back with the man who made it possible, the man behind the team, the then Iraq national coach Jorvan Vieira.

Jorvan Vieira still relives the memories of those few weeks in July every single day. 

The Brazilian coach is standing at the back of the Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi on a balmy spring evening in 2016.

It is almost ten years since I saw him last, but he looks the same; tall but standing with slight stoop, bookish glasses teetering on the tip of his nose. He chews gun furiously, as if to dissipate his live-wire energy, which hasn't faded with age. He greats me warmly when, by chance, I see him watching an Asian Champions League game in the UAE capital. “Honestly,” he says with smile, “when I accepted the job it was without thinking!”

The “job” he accepted without thinking was his brief time in charge of the Iraq national team. If he had thought about it, he might not have taken it. Iraq in 2007 was on fire and in the midst of a bloody and seemingly intractable civil war. Its players – who represented different sects and ethnicities – had all received threats of death or extortion. Every single player had seen family and friends murdered. In Baghdad alone hundreds of civilians were being killed every single day, Sectarianism was tearing Iraq apart

Yet, somehow, Vieira achieved the unthinkable during his brief but unforgettable tenure: Somehow, Iraq won the 2007 Asian Cup. “This is my proudest achievement,” he says, still emotional as he recounts those days, after all these years. Indeed, it is – for me – the greatest underdog story in the history of sport.

Vieira, a well regarded coach who had worked in north Africa and reverted to Islam during his time there, was hired only a few days before the start of the tournament. He had been hired at the very last minute by a chaotic Iraqi FA that had no money, no league and, seemingly, zero faith that the Lions of Mesopotamia would progress past the group stage. Merely qualifying for the tournament, had been a miracle. Regardless, Vieira was charged with taking the team to an Asian Cup, hosted in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

But first, there was a warm up tournament. I met Vieira on the side of the pitch at the Amman International Stadium in Jordan only a few days after he had arrived. I spent a week with the team as they prepared for the Asian Cup with a regional tournament called the West Asian Championship. They even reached the final (losing to Iran). The players were relaxed and united. Vieira had insisted that religion and politics were no go areas in the camp. Shia and Sunni played together.

After the final I waved goodbye to Vieira and the players as they flew coach to Thailand. “I remember very well the situation with [goalkeeper] Noor Sabri, when we travelled from Jordan to Thailand,” Vieira recalls of what happened next. “When we reached the Thai airport everyone turned on their phones and we saw him fall down. Water from his eyes like you open the tap. It was bad news. His brother died. We had to comfort him. I said he could go home and he said: 'No coach, I cannot do anything else'.”

No one expected anything from the team. And then a miracle happened. Iraq, a country that had always produced talented players, started winning. They beat Australia in the group stage and Vietnam in the quarter finals. Next they faced the best team in Asia, South Korea.

Each victory was met with murder back home. The team represented something that the insurgents hated: a united vision of Iraq free of sectarianism. Celebrating fans were targeted after each game. 50 were killed in car bombings after the South Korea game. The team were ready to give up. But a grieving mother, whose 12 year old son Haider had been killed in an ice cream parlour in the western Sunni district of Mansour, gave an emotional interview on Iraqi TV. She vowed not to bury her son until Iraq won the title.

At the time I had thought it an apocryphal tale. But in the years since, when I spoke to the captain Younis Mahmoud at the 2011 Asian Cup, or Iraq's midfield general Nashat Akram, the role Umm Haider (Mother of Haider in Arabic) played in convincing the players to continue was confirmed.

“We had to win for the Iraq people,” Vieira says. “But this touched me. I'm a father, I have a kid. The players were fathers with children. The words from the mother gave us more power and anger to win for her and for her kid who died.”

Younis Mahmoud famously scored the only goal in the final against Saudi Arabia. The players returned triumphantly to Baghdad despite the security issues. Waiting for them at the airport was the prime minister, and Umm Haider. The trophy was presented to her. The Prime Minister made sure she was given land and a house.

In the aftermath of the victory, violence plummeted in Iraq. It returned with the rise of ISIS. Of course, football could not solve Iraq's problems. But for a brief moment, Iraq was united.

Vieira was now between jobs, looking for work, and hoping to get hired in the UAE League. He had quite a resume and had enjoyed some success in recent years, most notably with Zamalek in Egypt, where he won the title in a febrile post-revolutionary climate.

“I'm a war coach!” Vieira says, only half joking, before returning to his seat for the second half. “I was an officer in the Brazilian military. I would meet guerillas from Venezuela at the Brazilian border. Maybe,” he adds, “this is what pushes me towards these jobs.”

When Friday comes is available to purchase from here. A sneak preview is available below.

Sign up for our newsletter

View Cart Go To Checkout