Soccer-Iraq seek fairytale ending after nightmare start

BANGKOK, July 26 Thu Jul 26, 2007 10:41am BST

BANGKOK, July 26 (Reuters) - Iraq's beleaguered soccer team are pinning their hopes on a fairytale ending to their Asian Cup story after logistical blunders and slapdash preparations plunged their campaign into disarray even before a ball had been kicked.

Against all odds, the unfancied Iraqis beat twice-champions South Korea 4-3 in a dramatic penalty shootout on Wednesday to reach their first Asian Cup final, bringing some rare cheer to the war-scarred Iraqi people.

The team's Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who has worked with 26 clubs and five national teams, says his short-term job with Iraq has been the toughest of his career.

"Everything has gone wrong -- hotels, food, equipment, players, training, logistics. You cannot imagine what we have been through," Vieira told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.

"Because of this, no one expected us to be where we are. What we have done has totally shocked people."

Vieira had only two months to prepare the squad in the safety of neighbouring Jordan, but when stubborn Baghdad clubs refused to release players, his first training sessions were attended by only six people.

FOREIGN INTRUDER

On the eve of national team games, players would pull out of the squad to return to their club sides, Vieira said, and he was far from popular with local coaches, who saw him as a foreign intruder on their turf.

Some of his players have been exposed to the grim reality of life in Iraq and are tormented by death threats and kidnappings and the loss of loved ones to car bombings and brutal murders.

The 54-year-old also inherited a squad split by sectarian infighting between Shi'tes and minority Sunni Arabs.

"I had problems with the group, there was no kind of unity, the relationship between the players was bad," he 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," he added.

Iraq's 1-1 draw with hosts Thailand in the opening match of the Asian Cup came somewhat as a miracle given their haphazard run-up to the competition.

They arrived in Bangkok with old kit and without training equipment, and were joined on the eve of their first match by two jetlagged, match-weary players, who were detained for eight hours by Thai immigration officials after more than a day of traveling.

MIDDLE-EASTERN TAKEAWAYS

Bangkok's notorious traffic snarl-ups disrupted training sessions, which often took place late at night in the pouring rain, and their unfamiliarity with the fiery Thai cuisine saw them order Middle-Eastern takeaways every night or dine in the city's predominantly Arab districts.

After beating Vietnam in the quarter-finals, Iraq arrived in Kuala Lumpur to find only seven rooms were available for their 30 players, who spent much of the day waiting in the hotel lobby.

To make matters worse, they discovered their rooms were being occupied by the Iranian national team, who had already been knocked out of the tournament.

Vieira is hoping Iraq's nightmare story will have a happy ending, though, when they meet thee-times winners Saudi Arabia in Sunday's all-Middle East final in Jakarta.

"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."