Saudi Arabia prevail over Japan in a five goal thrilling Asian Cup semi-final.
The ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ have been roaring all over East Asia [AFP]
The all-conquering Iraqi football team flew out of Kuala Lumpur this afternoon en route to an AFC Asian Cup final meeting with three-time champions Saudi Arabia in Jakarta on Sunday.
The journey to the Indonesian capital completes somewhat of an East Asian tour for Iraq as they march on in search of some much needed glory to give to the people in their troubled country.
Iraq held their final pre-tournament preparations in South Korea earlier in July, before flying into Bangkok where they were based for their group stage matches and quarter-final against Vietnam.
From there, the team’s continued success took them further south to Kuala Lumpur, the scene of a tense 4-3 semi-final win on penalties over the highly-fancied Korea Republic, and now the ‘Lions of Mesopotamia’ make a final journey for a grand finale in Jakarta.
Jorvan Vieira, Iraq coach, took the role of national manager just two months before the Asian Cup began, and says his short stint with Iraq has been the most challenging of his career.
“Everything has gone wrong – hotels, food, equipment, players, training, logistics,” Vieira told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.
“You cannot imagine what we have been through.
“Because of this, no one expected us to be where we are. What we have done has totally shocked people.”
Not a tourist group
|Watch Al Jazeera’s report|
Vieira was referring to his squad’s arrival in Kuala Lumpur, where they had to wait hours in the team hotel’s lobby before being allocated rooms.
To make matters worse, the Iraqis discovered their rooms were being occupied by arch-rivals Iran, who had already been knocked out of the tournament.
“This is not a tourist group, this is an international football team,” Vieira had said at the pre-semi-final press conference.
“This is supposed to be a big tournament, like the European Championships and Copa America, second only to the World Cup.
“Mistakes like this should not happen,” added the Brazilian, who has worked with 26 clubs and five national teams.
Vieira’s initial two months with the Iraq team were largely based in neighbouring Jordan as they contested the West Asian Football Federation championship, finishing runners-up to Iran.
Training sessions were sometimes attended by only six players due to obstinate Baghdad clubs refusing to release players, while on the eve of national team games, players would pull out of the squad to return to their club sides, according to Vieira.
Playing for the flag
Iraqi star players Younis Mohmoud, left, and Nashat
The 54-year-old also had to unite his players under one flag, as he inherited a squad split by sectarian infighting between Shi’tes and minority Sunni Arabs, as well as Kurds.
“I had problems with the group, there was no kind of unity, the relationship between the players was bad,” Vieira said.
“I had to find a solution to this, and got them to like each other and not bring their personal or political differences here.
“We could not have them at war with each other.”
Indeed, Vieira has taken a short time to unite his team, in stark contrast to the country they play for which continues to struggle for peace and harmony.
Sunday’s final is yet another opportunity to create a diversion from the daily trouble in Iraq, and hopefully some more moments of happiness should the underdogs lift the trophy for the first time.
Whatever the result, it has been quite a journey for Vieira and his men, both geographically and as a life lesson.
“This has all made us closer as a team and stronger as players and as men,” Vieira said.
“The players have problems in their lives, they are not normal footballers.
“We are all chasing this victory. It would be something very, very special for the players and the people.”