Penalty Goals

wsc301Awarding spot-kicks from open play breaks the law of cause and effect, argues Ian Plenderleith

Since being appointed manager of Iraq last August, Zico has repeatedly made it clear that his principal aim is to guide the troubled nation’s football team to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. Despite being well positioned to lead the 2007 Asian champions to the tournament in his homeland, the 58-year-old has discovered that winning over the Iraqi media is a more complicated issue.

Simmering resentments came to the boil at the seemingly innocuous Arab Games in Doha last December. The football tournament at the “Arab Olympics” was played out in front of almost empty stadiums in the 2022 World Cup host nation, except for the final. With Egypt, Morocco and Algeria not present – having chosen instead to compete for qualification to the London Olympics at the African Under-23 championships – there was a sense of anticlimax before the competition had even started.

However, an embarrassing opening defeat for Iraq reignited interest. Their group had been reduced to three teams when Syria pulled out in protest at the Arab League’s decision to suspend their membership and impose sanctions, meaning a first-match defeat for Iraq, Bahrain or Qatar would seriously damage their chances of claiming the one semi-final spot available.

So when Iraq lost 3-0 to Bahrain, coached by Peter Taylor, a tense and sometimes unpleasant post-match press conference ensued. A major cause for complaint was that Zico does not live or spend much time in the Iraqi capital. “You are the national coach of Iraq and instead of living in Baghdad and following our football, you prefer to stay in Doha,” said a member of Iraqi press, some of whom also resent Zico’s television work in Brazil.

Such was the level of antagonism, there was a question mark over whether a press conference would be held should Iraq lose against Qatar in their final group game. A goalless draw confirmed exits for both teams, meaning Taylor had seen off two Brazilians on his way to the gold medal, as Qatar were managed by Brazil’s 1990 World Cup coach Sebastiao Lazaroni, who was promptly sacked.

It is not difficult to feel some sympathy for Zico. “It’s hard to watch the Iraqi league because it’s difficult to go to Baghdad. It’s still very dangerous,” he said. “I don’t go much. I went at the start of December and there was so much security, men with rifles asking who you are and what you’re doing. You can’t come and go. In the south and the north it’s OK, but in Baghdad there are big problems.”

In a grim confirmation of this point, co-ordinated bombings killed dozens in Baghdad just over a week after Zico was criticised in Doha. However, there is a feeling among the Iraqi press that outsiders exaggerate the security issue. Mounes Abdullah, of Baghdad’s Aswat al-Iraq news agency, said: “People are surprised that Zico says Baghdad is dangerous. This is a false image and the proof is that we now have many league matches in Baghdad that attract up to 50,000 fans.” Abdullah added that the Iraqi football federation has been criticised for appointing an “internet coach” whose absence has frustrated fans.

Zico remains hugely popular in Brazil and clearly views football as a potential vehicle for social improvement. He recently opened his tenth football school for children in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, in conjunction with the state government’s drive to improve life for the city’s disenfranchised multitudes. He may find that Iraq’s problems are more difficult to overcome. His plans for a friendly with Brazil in Baghdad next year “as a tribute to the Iraqi people” have been shelved, with the aim now to arrange the match in the south of Iraq.

Whether it is exaggerated or not, the perception that Baghdad is too dangerous for international matches persists. Iraq have had to play their home World Cup qualifiers in Doha and the northern Kurdish city of Arbil. With more than half of their players at clubs in Iran, Egypt and Qatar, Zico has taken up a nomadic life. “I live in an aero-plane,” he said.

Two 1-0 wins against group favourites China secured Iraq’s berth in the fourth round of Asian qualification, from which four out of ten teams will proceed to Brazil. Iraq’s final third-round match against Singapore at the end of February may be a dead rubber, but Zico needs a good performance, especially after January’s miserable 1-0 friendly defeat in Lebanon that left the 1982 World Cup icon looking like an isolated figure on the side the pitch.

Regional heavyweights Japan and Australia, and probably South Korea, await in the next stage. If Zico can take Iraq to their second World Cup finals, the off-pitch issues should dissipate, but further shortcomings are likely to provoke more hostile press inquisitions.

From WSC 301 March 2012