SEOUL - Artur Antunes Coimbra, better known worldwide as Zico, was eating eggs for breakfast in a Doha hotel in last November when a reporter asked what it would mean if Iraq earned a spot at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The question was loaded with significance. A two-time South American Footballer of the Year famously nicknamed "White Pele," Zico played in three World Cups for Brazil (1978, 1982 and 1986) scored 52 goals in 72 international matches. He has since become a well-traveled 59-year-old coach, and last August agreed to a one-year contract with the Iraq Football Federation. Zico now has that country into the final round of qualification for the first time since 2002. "It will be special taking Iraq to the World Cup, any World Cup," Zico said. "But one in Brazil will be something to remember."
That journey begins Sunday in Amman when Iraq meets Jordan in the opening round of its group. Its next qualifier comes on June 10 in Doha against Oman. Ten nations are split into two groups of five in the Asia region. The top two finishers from each group automatically gain qualification to Brazil. The two third-placed teams meet for the right to face the fifth-place team from CONMEBOL's in a two-legged showdown late in 2013. With Japan and Australia, Asia's top two teams, in Iraq's group, Iraq is likely competing for the third position along with Jordan and Oman. That makes the first two games critical for Zico and his team.
How has Zico handled the day-to-day soccer? The coach still lives in Brazil and commutes to the Middle East, usually arriving 10 days ahead of games. His assistants (of which his brother Edu is one) handle much of the scouting and keeping tabs on players. "I come ten days before the match," Zico said. "It is not easy but at the moment it is okay."
Such absenteeism on a contract worth a reported $2.5 million (the government pays half to help out a cash-strapped FA) has not gone over well with the local media, who noted that during Christmas, when Iraqi players were in action all over the region, Zico was in Sao Paolo playing a charity soccer game with Neymar and the original Ronaldo.
His players, however, are behind him.
"Zico has brought a lot to the national team," defender Bassim Abbas recently told FIFA.com "Brazilian coaches understand Iraqi players, and experience showed that he was similar to us. We won the Asian Cup with another Brazilian coach, Jorvan Vieira, who understood us perfectly. Zico can read people very well and he adapted very quickly to the Iraqi players. We've discussed many things with him. Personally, I really liked what he said to us when he first took the job: 'I will try to spare you the things that I didn't like when I was a player, and apply those that will be useful to you.' Those words show his professionalism. Zico is quite simply one of the best coaches the Iraqi national team has ever had.
In 1986 when Zico was still one of the best players in the world, Iraq advanced to the World Chip in Mexico during the height of Uday Hussein's soccer reign of terror. Saddam's eldest son, the head of the Iraq Olympic committee,
These days, the players have power, and some would say too much. Striker Younis Mahmoud, the Iraqi captain and the hero of the 2007 Asian Cup win, is an influential figure on the team and has outlasted multiple coaches. But Zico as a coach has never cared too much about player politics. He led Japan to the Asian Cup in 2004, but two years later, the team arrived in Germany for the World Cup looking stale and without a competitive spirit, according to Japan midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata, who complained that the mood in the camp was too friendly. Japan left Germany without a single point.
Iraq is different to Japan, according to Zico, who looks tobeat his old team in 2013. "They [Iraq's players] are more physical," Zico said. "Japan are more focused on the game and more disciplined and more focused on training and tactical training. Iraqis always train with the ball and don't have much discipline. Iraqis have better technique and are more creative but the Japanese are very good at pap-pap-pap-pap," Zico said, making rapid gestures with his hands to demonstrate Japan's passing play.
After Japan, Zico coahed with clubs in Turkey, Uzbekistan and Russia. In January 2010, Zico was fired after just four months with Greek team Olympiakos. Last August he was tempted by Iraq's potential to make the World Cup in 2014, knowing that finishing the top two in a group containing Jordan, Singapore and China offered a fairly straightforward path to the final round of qualification.
Of course, the situation with Iraq is never straightforward. Just as they had in 1986, during the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq had to play its home qualifiers on foreign soil with one exception: Zico's first game in charge a week after he took the reins. That match against Jordan in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil did not go well. Iraq lost 2-0 and a power cut midway through the game was a reminder that the country is still recovering from years of turmoil.
But it proved to be a minor setback as Zico largely kept faith with the old guard and wins followed over Singapore, beating China twice and a win against Jordan in the return fixture in Amman. Though Iraq defeated Jordan in Amman in November, Jordan coach Adnan Hamad, though not well-known internationally, is arguably the best coach in Asia. He also knows Iraq very well: Hamad has had five spells in charge of the Iraq senior national team and also took the Olympic version to the quarterfinals in Athens in 2004. But Zico seems confident.
"The team has good technique and has good fighting spirit," Zico said. "If we go to the World Cup, we can get to the second round. I really believe this."