The Iraqi national soccer team was seen training in Baghdad on Tuesday for the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein five years ago.
Around 20 players resumed training this week at al-Shaab stadium, the main soccer venue in Baghdad, under Brazilian coach Jorvan Vieira, who returned earlier this month after guiding Iraq to Asian Cup victory last year.
A roadside bombing in central Baghdad that killed one person and wounded three did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd or the players, who braved temperatures of more than 40ºC for the practice session.
“I’m back here where I am at home, to form a new team that represents Iraq in the coming international competitions,” Vieira said.
Vieira had created a sensation in Iraq after the war-ravaged country’s Asian Cup success in beating Saudi Arabia, a three-time winner of the competition.
The Brazilian had only been appointed to the job less than two months before the tournament but left after that victory citing the unsettled nature of Iraq’s soccer administration.
The decision to hire Vieira again came after Iraq failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa following a 1-0 defeat to Qatar.
Vieira, a Muslim who converted to Islam while coaching in Morocco, was succeeded by Egil Olsen but the Norwegian was sacked after only three matches for refusing to coach in Iraq, reportedly because of his busy schedule.
The team’s next coach was Iraqi Adnan Hamad who was let go in June after the Qatar game.
Amid the violence that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, the Iraqi team abandoned training at home for security reasons, basing themselves instead in neighboring Jordan or Dubai.
However, the improved security of the past year has allowed them to return to Baghdad, where dozens of fans watched the national team go through its paces under its foreign coach.
“It gives us courage to come and train here in Baghdad with a foreign coach,” said goalkeeper Noor Sabri. “It is very nice and interesting to train in this stadium in front of our fans.”
Nearly 50,000 people crowded the national soccer stadium last month to watch the league championship decider between hometown favorites Iraq Zawra and Arbil, from the northern Kurdish region.
That fixture was the first big game in the capital in five years and saw Arbil win 1-0.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STAFF WRITER