Iraq have played just one competitive fixture at home since 2001 — a 2-0 defeat to Jordan in World Cup qualifying seven years ago. Friendly fixtures on home soil have been sporadic because of the tumultuous security situation.
International football did, however, come back to the country last year as Iraq recorded wins over Jordan and Kenya in Basra, and drew 1-1 with Syria in Karbala.
And Vieira, who famously guided the Lions of Mesopotamia to a shock Asian Cup triumph in 2007, believes Saudi Arabia’s participation in a friendly in Basra is a major milestone.
“It’s a very important moment for Iraq,” Vieira told Arab News. “The years without football have been challenging for these fans who love the game, and the national team, so much.
“It is another important step by the Iraq FA. Still there are problems in Iraq, but it’s about creating a safe environment for football to take place.
“Saudi Arabia is a big, influential country in the region — both in football and politics — and their national team is very well respected.
“This kind of match against a strong team like Saudi Arabia will raise the profile and hopefully help FIFA see that competitive matches should be considered again.”
During his time as Iraq coach, Vieira never oversaw a match on home soil. It is a source of regret for the Brazilian coach, who was made an honorary Iraqi citizen after the 2007 Asian Cup win.
“Of course, I would have loved to have coached the national team in Iraq,” Vieira said. “The Iraqi people have a great passion when the clubs in the local leagues play but for the national team it is a different level. Their love for the flag and the national team is incredible.”
That love is expected to manifest itself in a capacity crowd at the Basra Sports City Stadium, which welcomed nearly 60,000 fans to the friendly against Jordan last June.
A similar attendance is anticipated tonight, with Saudi Arabia unquestionably the highest calibre of opposition to play in Iraq since FIFA lifted its most recent ban.
The fixture also represents a thawing in political relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, which have been strained for many years. It will be the first encounter between the teams on Iraqi soil since a Gulf Cup clash in Baghdad in 1979.
“The problems between the countries are well known so there is also an opportunity to put those in order — an opportunity for peace,” said Vieira, who currently coaches UAE side Al-Ittihad Kalba. “Iraq needs to build a strong infrastructure around security and organization for foreign teams to feel comfortable and secure. For Saudi Arabia to come is a major statement that it is possible.”
Vieira has experienced the football culture of both countries having also previously managed Saudi Arabia outfit Al-Ta’ee. But there is no question that ahead of tonight’s friendly, the 64-year-old’s allegiances remain firmly with Iraq.
“There are similarities between football in Iraq and Saudi Arabia — both countries have quality players and, of course, both have brilliant supporters, too.
“But from my side, I always support Iraq and I hope Iraq can win. If they do win the match it will be a very important result for them; they are on the way to rebuilding a new national team and a new future.”