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.

"Today was our 12th game together and we have never had the same [lineup] for more than a single game. It is difficult," Vieira said. "But this is an example to the Iraqi people. They see their players working together, fighting together. This is not about religion or color and that is what is most beautiful for us."

Reports of social and sectarian division in the locker room have quieted down since Vieira began as coach on in late May, even if it is only because the coach refuses to address such matters.

"We are not going to talk anymore about [the sectarian matter] anymore," he said. "This is not my problem. I have my group here. They are united. They respect each other and have been working together. That is what is most important for me. Who is a Shia and who is a Sunni is not my problem. It is not my problem to ask them who is this and who is that."

Vieira's foremost concerns about his team have played out in the more tangible context of the field. There is the feeling in the international soccer community that a number of the Iraqi players are using the highly visible tournament as an occasion to show their wares and book a ticket to a safer, richer European or Asian league.

"The players played too individually, they relaxed too much, especially after scoring in the first minute in the first half," Vieira said in a press conference after the win over Vietnam in Bangkok.

Coaching is a role Vieira clearly enjoys. "Let us talk about the football," he said more than once during the interview.

But he relents at the mention of his staff. Vieira has had two team doctors since taking over as coach. The first was killed before the team could play in a tune-up tournament in late June. He was scheduled to meet the players where they were training in Jordan. But on his last day in Baghdad, he died in a car bombing.

"I was waiting for him to come join us," Vieira said. "He went to pick up his airplane ticket to Amman to start to work. His name was Anwar. He had a wife and four kids, one baby. 4 years old."

The "Lions of the Two Rivers" play next against a heavily favored South Korean side on Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The ex-pat Iraqi crowds expected in the Bukit Jalil Stadium that night will be loud, as they have been throughout the tournament. Perhaps they will take a line from their countrymen in Baghdad -- the youth who gathered in the streets to chant, "By this game, we are united! By this game, we are defiant!" A soccer team enough to save Iraq? Never. But, for one night at least, Iraqis could throw their support behind the soft power of a poem.

ABC's Mike Tuggle in Baghdad and the Associated Press contributed to this report.