After an absence of almost eight years, Iraq are back in the final round of an Asian Zone FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. A spirited preliminary campaign has given the 2007 Asian champions real hope of going all the way to Brazil 2014, and few would be happier than their coach to see that happen.
The man in question is Artur Antunes Coimbra, better known to fans around the world as Zico. The former Brazil star has pedigree in Asian football, having guided Japan to Asian Cup glory in 2004 and later to a place at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. The 58-year-old has made an equally encouraging start to life in charge of Iraq, leading the Lions of Mesopotamia to the last round of Asian qualifying.
Ahead of the final matchday of round three on 29 February, Zico spoke to FIFA.com about his experience with Iraq so far and gave his predictions for the rest of the preliminary tournament.
Zico took charge of Iraq just a few days before their opening third-round qualifier for Brazil 2014. The match, held in Erbil, marked the team's return to home soil after an enforced exile, and saw them take on a Jordan side led by Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad. Despite an enthusiastic display, Iraq lost the match 2-0 and prompted many to question whether they – and their coach – had the ability to reach the fourth round.
That opening defeat would prove to be little more than a blip, however, and suggested that all Zico needed was a little time to work on tactics and the strengthening of team bonds. Iraq went on to record four straight victories, defeating Singapore, beating China PR twice and gaining revenge against Jordan in the return fixture in Amman on matchday five.
“In the beginning we didn’t have enough time to prepare,” said Zico, reflecting on the early stages of his tenure. “Things improved after that and we’ve helped the players to progress, while working specifically towards each match. This method has paid off; we’ve beaten every team in our group and erased the memory of our defeat against Jordan.
“The victory in Amman secured our qualification [for the fourth round] and we’re now hoping to finish top of the group,” he continued. “Everyone doubted us after our [opening] defeat, but we’ve weathered the storm and completed our mission.”
Iraq are indeed safely through to the fourth round, and Zico believes his side should feel confident as they go into the final phase. “We had a difficult start,” he said. “We were limited to training just a few days before important matches. Since we qualified, we’ve had more time and we now have six months in which to prepare for the fourth round. We must now play an international match every month.”
“This break will also allow us to monitor the players and call up some new faces,” Zico added. “For our match in Qatar, we brought in four new players of a good standard. The main thing is to be ready when the big day comes. I want my players to believe that they deserve their place at the World Cup.”
The line-up for the last round of qualifying is starting to take shape, and just four places remain as the sixth and final third-round matchday approaches. Zico is confident he knows which teams will reach Brazil 2014, and fancies his own side’s chances of joining them there.
“Australia, Japan and Korea Republic [if they qualify] are the clear choices, as they all played at the last World Cup,” he explained. “I’d also add Iran to the list. That said, results so far have confounded expectations: Japan lost to Korea DPR, Australia were beaten by Oman and Korea Republic went down to Lebanon.
“You have to prove yourself on the pitch,” the former Brazil playmaker went on. “The only way to qualify is to work hard, score goals and keep the ball out of your own net. In South America, no-one could have imagined Argentina losing to smaller teams. But that’s what happened against Bolivia and, more recently, Venezuela. It goes to show that there are no favourites in football... except Barcelona [laughs].
“All the teams have shown what they’re capable of throughout the qualifying campaign and I’m not expecting any big upsets in the final round. I’m going to focus on preparing Iraq in the best possible fashion and getting my players to realise that they can beat anyone. In football, it’s 11 against 11. To deserve to win, you just have to play from the heart.”
Every national team coach dreams of stepping out at a FIFA World Cup after a long and gruelling qualifying campaign, and Zico is no different. His delight at qualifying for Germany 2006 with Japan was plain to see, so the idea of leading Iraq at the 2014 edition, in his homeland, understandably fills him with excitement. The 58-year-old could not hide his enthusiasm as he declared that “everyone wants to qualify for the great festival of world football”.
“I’ve appeared [at World Cups] as a player and a coach. I really hope I can experience it again,” Zico concluded. “Yes, Brazil is my home country but I’m Iraq’s coach and I just want to lead this team to the World Cup. I have faith in my players and I hope our efforts will be rewarded with success.”