Brazilian coaches rank a distant second to their players, the number one export to the soccer world. From Washington in the J-League, Zinha in the Mexican Primera, to Edgar Barretto in the Indian NFL, Brazilian players don’t just make up the ranks but are their league leaders. The amount of financial transactions and business that involve Brazilian soccer players must be equivalent to the GDP of a small country.
There have been a handful of Brazilian big name coaches, Big Phil Scolari, Carlos Alberto Parriera, and Zico who shared the spotlight in the 2006 World Cup but none went the distance. Since then, Parriera has moved to South Africa, Big Phil has been retained as Portugal’s coach, and Zico resigned following Japan’s dismal showing.
The perception so far is that Brazilian players make their coaches look good. And since attack is the best form of defense, both defenders and coaches in Brazil are often overlooked and derided. That maybe one reason why when you peruse Globoesporte or any other sport periodical there is hardly a mention of Jorvan Vieira, the present coach of the Iraqi team. He is a former coach of Vasco da Gama and Botafogo, and since those days has gone onto coach 26 club teams and five national squads.
A nomad who has coached numerous small clubs and countries under the radar. In the high flying world of Brazilian soccer he is small potatoes. He is a legend in Morocco where he converted to Islam and assisted Jose Faria in leading the country to the 1986 World Cup, the first African country to do so. Vieira looks more like an ascetic and carries a professorial air, he in fact holds a doctorate in sports sciences from France and speaks 7 languages, including Arabic. He is a very well respected club coach in the Middle East and has also coached the Oman and Kuwait U20 squad in a career spanning 15 years.
The Iraqi coaching job came to him as three other candidates rejected the offer as they were issued death threats. In Brazil, coaches are unceremoniously removed. In Iraq, you don’t have that luxury. Vieira’s predecessor Akram Ahmed Salman tried to quit after he and his family received death threats, but Iraq’s soccer chiefs rejected his resignation. Vieira’s assistant can’t return to Iraq because the last time he was in Baghdad, gunmen threatened to kidnap his son. In fact, this is the story of many soccer players in the team who have lost family members in the civil war sweeping the country. The dislocation caused by the war is so severe that the makeshift Iraqi FA headquarters is a hotel lobby in Amman.
For someone who came only five weeks before the Asian Cup, Vieira shows a remarkable grasp and understanding of his players and the effect the war has had on them.
“Some of them, if they go to Iraq, they are going to be killed,” Vieira said of his squad. “When you don’t know where your home is, where your things are, you are lost in space. It’s the same when you have no organisation in your house. You don’t know where you put your socks or your trousers. It’s the same here. They are lost people because of the war.”
Very few gave him a chance to succeed. But Vieira understood his job did not entail just coaching a team but acting as a healer.
“They’ve been through so much. The players are so strong, but sometimes too strong. They have so much pain that I have to be not only a coach, but a psychologist, a father, and a friend to them.They are a very good example of unity to the Iraqi people.”
He has been clear on one thing. He and his team are here not just to participate but to play well and challenge for the Asian Cup despite the almost insurmountable problems and the abbreviated training period.
“I have to be confident about winning. I can’t talk about my problems, and say we’ll do nothing, because I am not a loser. I’ve lost very few times in my life.”
But Vieira has been modest about his own achievements with this overachieving Iraqi team.
“The congratulations should not go to me. It should go to my players, my staff who are working behind me,” a humble Vieira told a press conference after his side’s stunning 3-1 victory over the Socceroos. “Because without these people I can not do anything. I’m not a magician.”
His influence in unifying this team has been nothing short of miraculous, proving many naysayers wrong. He again mentioned that he was not a magician. Humility seems to be a defining trait. He mentions how everyone was at loggerheads in the beginning and his first initiative was to get them all together, bringing players from the various sects, Shia, Sunnis, and the Iraqi Kurds, together.
“I tried to unify them. Now they are together, they kiss each other, they shake each others’ hands. They are not fighting or talking politics. They accepted my way. I am not a magician, but I know football can change people.”
Vieira may claim not to be a magician but he seems to have a strong sense of destiny. He knows this is no ordinary coaching job.
“When I see everyone working together, it touches my heart, I cannot explain this feeling,” he said. “But if the results don’t come, maybe the problem will come back. I hope I can make a difference.”
So far it is working out fantastically. Iraq are through to the finals to meet Saudi Arabia, a country where Nashat Akram, one of Iraq’s heroes plays his club football. The Iraqis have surpassed Vieira’s own expectations.
“I want to be in the last four,” he said. “If I had more time, I would tell you I’m going to make the final but now that’s not possible. If we got to the final then, as the Arabs say, ‘it is with God’.”
The Iraqi soccer team, the power of football, God, and Jorvan Vieira. The Iraqis love him and want him to remain. As for Brazilians, some should be getting warm fuzzies that it is one of them that is shaping the Iraqis historical run. And it is not a player.