IRAQ: A Brazilian boost for Iraqi soccer fans
The stale-smelling room where U.S. and Iraqi officials hold most press conferences is not normally stuffed with giddy reporters, but the ones who gathered there Wednesday to hear that Brazilian Jorvan Vieira was coming back to coach Iraq's national soccer team made no attempt to hide their excitement.
Iraq is mad for soccer, especially in light of the country's unexpected victory in July 2007 at the Asian Cup under Vieira's guidance. In the midst of some of their country's most violent days, and as Iraq's political leaders showed no signs of working through the sectarian distrust crippling the country, the ethnically and religiously mixed team beat Saudi Arabia, 1-0, to claim the cup.
Tens of thousands of fans poured into the streets of Baghdad in celebrations that lasted well after dark -- a novelty in the violent capital.
Vieira became a hero to Iraqis, but he stepped down after the event. Two subsequent coaches, a Norwegian and an Iraqi, failed to lead the team to success in World Cup qualifying matches. The Iraqi, Adnan Hamad, stepped down in June after a loss to Qatar ended Iraq's hopes of making the World Cup finals in 2010. It would have been the country's first time playing in the World Cup since 1986.
Iraqi sports officials had made no attempt to hide their desire to lure back Vieira. At Wednesday's news conference at the Combined Press Information Center, better known as CPIC and housed within the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said Iraqi officials would do whatever was needed to help Vieira and the team.
"It united and will unite Iraqis, and it demonstrates the bright side of our brotherly people," Dabbagh said of the team.
Vieira alluded to the challenges facing him. Although violence in Iraq has declined dramatically, the country's facilities are limited and danger remains. Athletes always have been targets of insurgents, who view them as anti-Islamic or as supporters of the U.S.-backed regime because of their representation of Iraq in international events. That has made training difficult, and it has made it hard for national teams to hang on to star players.
"We have to try to get some more experience. We may lose some matches," Vieira warned, but he said this would be a learning experience for players. "We learn more when we lose, not when we win, and I think this is a very important step for sports in Iraq in general. I think I can help sports in Iraq because I am not only a football coach, but I am a teacher."
As he spoke, dozens of Iraqi journalists crowded the room, many standing on chairs for a better view. Before the conference began, they spoke excitedly of the days surrounding the Asian Cup.
The two super-fans who act as human mascots for the national team and go by the names Qadouri and Mehdi also were there, clad as always in tracksuits the color of the Iraqi flag: green, red, black and white. "Vieira, you are the hero!" Qadouri yelled in his trademark high-pitched voice as Vieira signed a paper closing the deal.
Details of the deal were not disclosed, but the Reuters news agency quoted the coach later as saying it contained everything he demanded. "Maybe I'm crazy. I don't know," he told Reuters. "They promised me no more headaches," he added, alluding to disorganization and political interference in the past. "I have set my conditions, my budget. I will decide how this team will be run. If not, I'll walk."
At the end of the news conference, the media rushed Vieira. Some kissed him. Others shook his hand. Everyone jostled to take his picture and to have their pictures taken with him. It was as if he had just won the Asian Cup again.
Dabbagh, meanwhile, slipped away, one of the few times the government spokesman walked through a crowd of journalists without being hounded for comments.
-- Saif Rasheed and Tina Susman in Baghdad
Photo: Iraqi police join fans in celebrating the Asian Cup win in 2007. Credit: Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times
P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.