World Cup Qualifying 2014: Charting Iran's Journey to Brazil
Japan, South Korea and Australia, for various different reasons, have each received extensive coverage since ensuring their qualification from the Asian World Cup Qualifying programme. Japan performed encouragingly at the summer’s Confederations Cup and will surely be many people's dark horses next summer; South Korea have some interesting personnel decisions to make but look perfectly competent under legendary centre-back Hong Myung-Bo, while Australia have changed their coach following two 6-0 friendly defeats.
Iran, on the other hand, have eschewed the limelight. They are the forgotten party from AFC Qualification and have taken their place among the 21 confirmed participants for next summer’s centrepiece with barely a whisper.
This article looks back over their World Cup history and their endeavours during qualification, and it examines their chances ahead of Brazil 2014.
The Road is Long
Next summer will represent Iran's fourth foray to the international footballing high table. They return to the World Cup following an eight-year absence, having missed out on Germany 2006.
In truth, they have failed to uproot any trees since their maiden qualification 35 years ago.
Back in 1978, they made the cut for the World Cup in Argentina after an emphatic qualification programme. They preserved a 100 percent record during the first round and then secured their spot after winning 14 points from eight games in the final round.
Back in the days when Asia and Oceania only received one invitation for the high table, Iran's progression was quite an achievement.
At the tournament proper, they suffered from an opening day defeat to the rampant Dutch and played their part in the demise of Ally McLeod with a 1-1 draw with Scotland before succumbing to Peru after a flurry of goals in the first half.
It would be 20 years (and the paralysis of the Iranian Revolution) before they were to return.
Their readmission to the grandest global occasion came in 1998, as the Word Cup came to Europe and France.
Qualification was a trickier affair this time around. Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia qualified from Asia, leaving Iran to face Australia in an AFC/OFC play-off decider.
The two sides drew 1-1 in front of almost 130,000 in Tehran, before a 2-2 draw in Melbourne a week later. Iran qualified by virtue of the away goals scored.
In the group stage, Iran faced the unenviable challenge of contests with Yugoslavia and Germany, as well as a clash with bitter political rivals, USA. Despite losing to the two European sides, the tournament is remembered as a triumph.
Iran beat the States 2-1 in Lyon during a truly memorable bout. It began with an exchange of flowers, gifts and pleasantries between the two teams and ended with the Persian Stars dumping their long-resented foe out of the tournament.
The match represents Iran's most glorious hour on the world stage.
After missing out in 2002, as the World Cup came to Asia for the first time, Iran returned to the fold in 2006. Here, an uncelebrated group of players, some of whom had been present for the 1998 tournament, were dumped out with a whimper.
Consecutive defeats against Mexico and Portugal saw them fall at the first hurdle, and they could only manage a draw with new boys Angola in the group's final clash. It was an undignified and thoroughly forgettable return to the international elite.
The Lions of Asia will be hoping for something much more convincing this time around. The team's World Cup record stands at played nine, won one, drawn two, lost six. The new crop do not have high standards to maintain!
Comeback at the Copacabana
At the Asian Cup in 2011, a fairly appropriate gauge for forecasting the 2014 qualification process, Iran endured a mixed tournament.
They qualified from their group with a flourish, smashing the United Arab Emirates 3-0 in Doha. Impressive as this victory was, however, it didn't totally mask the side's failings—it had taken a winner in the last 10 minutes, and a single second-half goal to beat Iraq and North Korea, respectively, as the side struggled to find their rhythm.
The team found goals hard to come by, with no one scoring more than once, and it was little surprise when they failed to break down South Korea in the quarter-final. They were eliminated following an extra-time winner from Yoon Bit-Garam.
In that context, World Cup qualification has brought little in the way of complications. Iran were professional away from home and excelled in Tehran to escape Group E in the third round of proceedings.
In Round 4, they were pooled with the ominous South Korea, emerging forces Uzbekistan and Qatar and Lebanon. It is to their credit that they emerged unscathed from a fairly taxing collection of nations. They may have dropped points carelessly at home, but on the road, resolute victories over South Korea, Qatar and Uzbekistan made the difference and saw them top the group.
Qualification was secured in June. Iran beat Korea in Ulsan, a typically unyielding away performance that ultimately saw both teams progress to the tournament proper next summer. The 1-0 triumph prompted wild celebrations from coach Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United, Real Madrid and Portugal.
According to the Associated Press (via USA Today), the manager described the team that day as playing with "fantastic team spirit, with great practical discipline and enormous determination." His joy was replicated across Tehran, where, according to CNN's Shirzad Bozorgmehr, "cars…were draped in the Iranian flag and blowing their horns as their passengers shouted 'Iran, Iran.'"
Standard Liege forward Reza Ghoochannejhad has been identified as the side's "golden boy" by FIFA. He scored the winner that day, and like compatriots Andranik Teymourian and Ashkan Dejagah, he will be a key man for Iran next summer. Veteran midfielder Javad Nekounam may be 33, but he skippers the side excellently from the heart of the park, where his influence shows no sign of dimming.
Will Iran manage to escape the group next summer?
A look to the Summer
The three aforementioned contests shed light on the qualities that have underpinned Iran's successful qualification campaign.
In Group A in the fourth round of Asian qualification, they conceded only two goals in eight fixtures. Three of their four away ties, in destinations as diverse as Tashkent, Doha and Ulsan, were won 1-0. The defence was breached in surprise defeats against Uzbekistan and Lebanon but held firm in the other six fixtures. The other Asian sides didn't even come close to replicating this resiliency.
Similarly, the players demonstrated a mental toughness and a big game aptitude in the crunch qualifiers; a sign, perhaps, of the progress that has taken place since that Asian Cup.
Uzbekistan, South Korea (twice) and Qatar were all beaten by single second-half goals. Certainly, we all adore high-scoring games and thrilling encounters, but if Iran can carry this obduracy into Brazil next summer, then few will relish the prospect of a contest with the Lions of Asia.
The presence of Queiroz brings another dimension to the Iranian narrative. The Mozambique-born coach was in charge of Portugal at the last World Cup, and ignoring a 7-0 defeat of the hapless North Korean, they failed to score a goal. They did, however, only concede one—in the second-round defeat to Spain. Iran, like that Portuguese side, may not be the most threatening team going forward, but it will take an awful lot to breach their back line effectively.
The reality, however, is that the national side will be one of the tournament’s rank outsiders. Currently sitting in 49th spot in the FIFA World "classement," Iran will doubtless be identifying a place in the last 16 as a realistic target. I would argue, however, that considering the country’s past disappointment outside of the Asian arena and the strength of the field already confirmed for next summer, a more realistic aim might be just to remain competitive right up until the final group game.
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