Iraqi Soccer Team Defies Expectations

Ninety minutes of peace -- that is what Jorvan Vieira dreams of for Iraq. The Brazilian has been the head coach of the country's national soccer team for only 59 days. But no man, in 59 years of Iraqi soccer, has led the team further in their quest for the coveted Asian Cup.

Vieira accepted the position after the last coach was fired amid death threats in May. He was given 45 days to prepare a team known abroad for intrasquad and institutional discord for one of the world's most fiercely competed tournaments.

This weekend in Thailand, the Vieira-led Iraqi squad beat Vietnam 2-0 to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 1976.

"I took the job to complete my CV and because the Iraqi people are suffering too much," Vieira told ABC News, from a hotel in Bangkok, an hour after his team's historic quarterfinal win. "They have a passion for football, they love football. I am no magician but I think I can bring some happiness to the Iraqi people."

Joy takes a dark form in Iraq these days. In Baghdad, the sound of celebratory gunfire could be heard before final whistle was blown. The lucky minority -- those with electricity and a functioning satellite or radio -- were the first to know when time had run out in Thailand. The rest figured it out soon enough.

It was the gunfire that tipped them. Iraqis streamed into the streets reveling in the victory, AK-47s in hand, to celebrate a rare unifying moment for the beleaguered and violent country.

"The Iraqi soccer team made us happy despite all of our deep sorrow," said Sami Talib, 54, a Shiite and retired teacher living in western Baghdad, to The Associated Press. "The win unified Iraqis and uncovered their real core," he said. "I hope our politicians do the same and put aside their political disputes to win also and achieve the security and stability in our beloved country."

The celebratory gunfire in Baghdad could be heard for at least 20 consecutive minutes after the game. By the time the streets had cleared Saturday night, The AP reported as many as five people were killed and 50 more wounded in the mayhem.

As the body count grew in Baghdad, Vieira, safe in the lobby of the team's hotel in Bangkok, gathered his breath and thoughts and began to talk about three relentless fortnights as the Iraqi coach. He couldn't talk before -- the singing of the Iraqi players drowned out their coach's voice as he tried to answer questions via mobile phone from the team bus.

"In my group," Vieira said, still yelling into his phone despite the more serene background, "the players and staff or directors, you cannot find one person who has not lost one relative. All of them have lost at least one. It is unbelievable."

"But football can help," he said. "More important, during the matches, [the people and players] can forget everything. These men, this side, they bring people together." Vieira's squad is a mix of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish players. Of the 23 athletes on the official roster, just 10 compete professionally inside Iraq. The others are among the 2.2 million Iraqi refugees that have flooded neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan, where the national team now conducts its training sessions.

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