The world's best underdog story: Jorvan Vieira on Iraqi football
At a small cafe in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Marina, Jorvan Vieira gently stirs a cup of green tea as a tear rolls out from under his glasses and down his cheek. Describing the moment he was offered honorary Iraqi citizenship, the emotion of the memory overwhelms him. It was the Brazilian coach’s richest reward for masterminding one of football’s greatest underdog stories.
Before Leicester City, there was Iraq. Their remarkable 2007 Asian Cup triumph was a tale of the unexpected that also had its roots in Thailand - one of the tournament’s four joint-host nations. It was not, however, set against the backdrop of wealthy owners, multi-million-pound salaries and the bright lights of the Premier League.
Iraq’s success came as the country was embroiled in one of the 21st century’s most infamous conflicts. It was a triumph for national pride and for humanity, as football provided the country with some welcome respite after years of hostile war.
As Vieira recalls Iraq’s iconic victory over Saudi Arabia in the final, the distinct sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer aptly interrupts him; many Iraqis regard his achievement as a genuine moment of divine intervention.
To describe Vieira as a national treasure in Iraq would be an understatement. A decade later he is still regularly stopped at airports by fans seeking a ‘selfie’ with the man who made their football dreams a reality. One of the consequences of war is that the Iraqi diaspora now reaches far and wide, meaning Vieira has encountered supporters from Frankfurt to Florida. Within the Middle East, a trip to a mall will inevitably bring a meeting with either an irrepressible Iraqi or a sheepish Saudi ready to offer belated, and somewhat rueful, congratulations.
“This is more valuable than any money you can get in football,” Vieira tells Esquire Middle East. “Win, lose, draw - it’s going to happen; no coach can win every time. But when the supporters recognise and respect you because they know the job you have done - this is better than any salary. I never get tired of this, honestly. It is still an incredible thing for me. Money cannot buy this.”
One of football’s greatest qualities is its propensity to provide moments where the heart wins over the head. Vieira harnessed his players’ sadness and anger, transforming it into champion spirit. He did not need to remind them every day of what was happening at home in Iraq - the stream of phone calls informing of the loss of loved ones was enough to ensure no-one could forget.
“How do you train if your brother, or your father has just died?” Vieira says. “I was trainer, psychologist, father, brother, friend. I wanted to be everything to these players, to help them use football as a way to escape these terrible things happening to their country, to the people they loved.”
The spectre of war loomed particularly large over Vieira and his group ahead of the tournament. During a training camp in Jordan, Iraq’s physio went to Baghdad for the birth of his child. He would not return.
“I told him to take a few days off and he saw his son born, the happiness was there,” Vieira explains, his eyes welling up. “He came to Baghdad to collect his ticket at the travel agent and when he came out a car bomb exploded and he died.
“It was just terrible. We were building a family and he was central to that. During this period in Jordan I started to talk with the players. More talking than training. We talked about the importance of the competition and of the matches beyond football – how we could try to give Iraqi people hope. This was without doubt their most important motivation.”
From the very beginning, Vieira felt certain he had a special group. The Iraqi Football Association president laughed when his new coach suggested that the players should have tournament-winning bonuses written into their contracts. But Vieira’s self-belief was unshakeable.
“I said to him I am going all the way to the final, believe me. We established the bonuses and he basically allowed me to put whatever I wanted as he was so convinced it would never happen. But I knew. I was offered a job in Saudi Arabia at the same time but I only wanted Iraq. I knew the players were like gladiators - they were fighters. I knew I could do something.”
Vieira immediately set about shaping his squad, starting with a 55-man training camp which took place on a rundown pitch close to a rather dangerous border in Jordan. He threatened to drop two of the team’s best players, Nashat Akram and Iraqi idol Younis Mahmoud, when they said they wanted to return to their clubs teams. The approach worked, with Vieira earning the pair’s respect.
One of his most controversial decisions proved to be the selection of Jassim Ghulam, whom Vieira picked ahead of veteran captain Haytham Khadim.
“On the third day of training, this boy Jassim came up to me and asked to join in. He wasn’t on the list of players but said he was living in Jordan with his mother and sister. He begged me for a chance and I gave it to him. My assistant told me I was crazy because he was so out of shape. But I wanted to see his football, not his fitness. He came the next day and immediately I knew he would be in my starting XI.”
Ghulam went on to play a pivotal role in Iraq’s success, reserving one of his finest performances for the final against Saudi Arabia.
With his firm hand and obvious passion, Vieira quickly won over the players. He brought together a group containing Sunnis, Shias and Kurds and guided Iraq to the final of the West Asian Cup - a preparatory tournament for the Asian Cup proper - where they lost to Iran. Despite defeat, the team were greeted like heroes by the Iraqi supporters in Jordan.
“It gave us a new oxygen,” Vieira says. “The players understood how much the fans were behind us, how much they were looking to us for inspiration. They knew how much they had to work for their families, their country, the people who had died in the war.”
Although confidence was growing, Iraq entered the tournament among the rank outsiders and had a tough group to contend with, featuring continental heavyweights Australia, co-hosts Thailand, and Oman.
A 1-1 draw with Thailand in the opening match was followed by the result that proved the major catalyst for later success. A 3-1 victory over Australia saw Iraq’s players injected with a new faith in their abilities, as they bettered a team full of European-based stars like Tim Cahill and Harry Kewell. The final group stage match brought a draw with Oman and with it a place in the quarter-finals.
Vieira and Iraq had already surpassed expectations but there was more to come. Vietnam were beaten in the last eight before the mighty South Korea were edged on penalties in the semi-finals, setting up a clash with regional giant, Saudi Arabia.
So unexpected was Iraq’s progress that they were not able to organise an official space to train ahead of the match. Vieira’s final preparations for the biggest sporting event in Iraq’s history took place in a park in the centre of Jakarta, while bemused passers-by snapped photos.
On the day of the final, Vieira spent the bus ride to the stadium asleep, attributing the players’ calmness at kick-off to his slumber.
“They couldn’t believe it but I felt so cool. I think this gave them a feeling of security - that if I was so relaxed, they shouldn’t be so nervous.
“Before the game, I just repeated what I had said throughout the tournament. That we were there to put a smile on the lips of Iraqi people because for so long they had not had the chance to smile. This was our job.”
Vieira’s role could never be simply reduced to that of dressing-room hype man, however. Tactically astute and rigorous in preparation, he obsessively studied Iraq’s opponents to ensure his players knew what was expected.
It paid off in the final, Younis Mahmoud’s winning goal coming from a corner that had been practised time and again in training – exposing Saudi Arabia’s weakness in defending set-pieces. Iraq held on tight to their 1-0 lead and after an agonising period of injury time, the whistle finally blew: Iraq were champions of Asia.
“At that moment, it was pure joy and happiness,” Vieira recalls. “Everyone expressed this happiness in their own way. They knew that because of the war, too, just how enormous the achievement was.
“Step by step we gave more hope and happiness to the Iraqi people - and during this period of the Asian Cup, it was said that less people died in Iraq than at any other time during the war.
“In this 22 days the people were attached to the football, to the story.”
The acclaim quickly poured in, with Vieira receiving congratulatory messages from the likes of Brazilian World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, as well as an array of civilian honours. He was decorated as a peace ambassador by the Italian Senate and, perhaps most poignantly, was made an honorary citizen of Iraq.
“After everything we had been through, this was of course incredibly important to me,” Vieira says. “Remember there were lots of different backgrounds in my squad - Sunni, Shia, Kurdish - and internal conflicts had been a problem before. At the beginning it was clear that there was a divide. But they became brothers of Iraq, they understood the importance of what they were doing.”
Vieira’s first visit to Iraq came after the final but amid the sobering scenes of destruction in Baghdad was an overwhelming feeling of hope and happiness. People with flags lined the streets to catch a glimpse of their heroes, singing songs and celebrating the most unlikely of success stories.
The Brazilian coach has been back many times since and remains unfazed by visiting, even in the face of the country’s current security issues.
“You can die in your toilet, you can die on any street in the world. It depends when god decides. I am never scared of where I travel and will never be scared in Iraq.
“This year I inaugurated a stadium in Karbala and I was there for five days. I think I had my photo taken more than 3,000 times on the streets. On one drive we had five checkpoints to pass through and at every one the policemen would stop to take photos. This win in 2007 remains part of the life of Iraqis, of their history. It makes me very proud.”
Vieira left his Iraq post soon after the Asian Cup before returning for a somewhat less remarkable second spell in 2008. He has coached across the Middle East since – in the UAE, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt – but there is no question his heart will always remain in Iraq.
“If Iraq asked me to come back to coach again, I could not say no. I carry the map of Iraq with me always on my necklace. For them I will do anything. In these 10 years, the love that I have received from the Iraqi people does not have a price.”