Iran's Political Strife and Its Effect on Their World Cup Qualifying Campaign

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Iran's Political Strife and Its Effect on Their World Cup Qualifying Campaign
Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images

It was smiles all round last week as Iran's football team attended an official ceremony before leaving for the World Cup finals in Brazil.

But tensions between head coach Carlos Queiroz and Iranian authorities have cast a shadow over what is a huge task to qualify for the second round.

Iranians celebrated in the streets when Team Melli qualified for the finals last year, its fourth appearance at the finals.

It came just days after a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, won the presidential election offering a brighter future following eight years of increasing financial pain and tighter restrictions under hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On paper, the team's prospects look daunting. Iran was drawn against Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F, teams which boast numerous stars who play in the best leagues in the world.

In contrast, Iran's squad members mostly play in its domestic leagues where the game is less intense.

"The expectations on the team to do well are very high, but those expectations are unrealistic," said Majeed Panahi, one of the founders of Team Melli, an English-language sports news website aimed at keeping the Iranian diaspora around the world up to date on Iranian football.

"It's going to be very difficult to make it to the next round."

Iran's preparations have been hampered by numerous tensions in the run-up to the finals.

Team complaints over the low quality of their training kit—as per AFP—and confrontations over the release of players for international duty—as per the Telegraph—have spilled into the public domain, with officials repeatedly trying to play down the issues.

According to the Iranian press, Queiroz, the former assistant coach of Manchester United and head coach of Real Madrid and South African and Portuguese national teams, has pushed hard to get what he needs for the national team.

"Carlos fought uphill battles like you wouldn't believe. He has good relations with the Iranian Football Federation (FFI), but they've had to fight for every inch," said Mick McDermott, Iran's former fitness coach who worked with Queiroz from April 2012 to July 2013 and is now fitness coach at UAE side Al Nasr FC.

"In other countries, you don't have to fight like that. Your energies are concentrated on the team and the preparation."

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Queiroz's three years at the helm began in April 2011. One of his central missions was to identify key players of Iranian descent who were playing at a high level abroad and who could boost the team's chances through heightened tempo, fitness and skill levels required by European leagues.

He was instrumental in persuading several foreign-based players to play for the national team, including Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham) a striker born in Iran but who had moved to Germany when he was young, and Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton), who grew up in the Netherlands and became the golden boy of Iranian football when he scored the crucial goal against South Korea last June that secured Iran a place in the finals.

Others include Stephen "Mehrdad" Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), a defender born in the United States who received his first cap in 2013.

They are bolstered by two experienced midfielders—Javad Nekounam, the team captain who spent five years at Osasuna, and Andranik Teymourian, who played for several years in England at Fulham, Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers.

There was resistance to Queiroz's hunt for Iranian players who had grown up abroad, but he was persistent, and it formed an element of the reorganisation of the management and discipline of the national team.

Joosep Martinson/Getty Images

The project for the first three months was ordering equipment—new nets, balls, kit and much more. Queiroz was intent on enhancing the prestige of the national team so that it wasn't a step down from Iran's club teams.

McDermott recounts his first experience of travelling to a home game in Tehran's Azadi stadium. He boarded the team bus and, to his dismay, saw the kit man, the doctors and the physios: "Obviously nothing was set up in the changing room when we arrived. No preparation at all."

The coaching team set about implementing detailed plans for training camps in the run-up to games. They upgraded hotels, decorated players' rooms with pictures of Iranian football to inspire them, drew up detailed itineraries for camps and introduced concise preparation protocols for every member of staff.

"It was a wake-up to international standards of preparation," said McDermott.

In his autobiography last year, retired Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson described Queiroz as brilliant, intelligent and meticulous.

"He was the closest you could be to being the Manchester United manager without actually holding the title," wrote Ferguson, a manager renowned for his attention to detail and uncompromising attitude.

Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images

Inevitably, Queiroz's demanding character brought tensions, not least following his suggestion that Iran's domestic knockout competition, the Hazfi Cup, should be cancelled.

His request wasn't approved, but the competition was pushed forward to minimise its impact on national team preparations.

Queiroz was also criticised for spending too much time outside the country and not enough at Iranian league matches.

"He's a good coach and tactician, but he expects the whole country to change its mentality to be in line with his own and this has been regarded as a problem," said Panahi of the Team Melli website.

Queiroz's plans for a training camp in Portugal were cancelled, and the team have lacked warm-up matches against major teams, both issues emanating from what the FFI says are its squeezed finances because of sanctions against the country.

Instead Iran has faced friendly fixtures against Belarus and Montenegro, both resulting in unconvincing goalless draws. That said, they did beat Trinidad and Tobago 2-0, last time out.

Significantly Queiroz has also confronted Iran's club sides over their refusal to release players for longer for national team camps. Only 11 players made it to a training camp in South Africa in early May because of the clash with the Asian Champions League, the region's most prestigious club competition. Queiroz has bemoaned the fact publicly.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"Those who think Iran's national team will be successful with only 14 days of preparation are either crazy or living in Disneyland," he told reporters during Iran's training camp in Austria last month, as per The National.

In May, President Rouhani's chief of staff, Mohammad Nahavandian, called for everyone to unite behind the team, and there is little doubt Iran's huge and dedicated fan base are willing Team Melli on to fight for every inch they can during their group matches.

"The key is the first two games," says McDermott, referring to Iran's match against Nigeria on June 16, which he says will be a tough test.

"Carlos will be preparing the team meticulously. He's working hard to get the whole level of physical and mental stamina up."

And McDermott remains hopeful: "Iran has good players and it's not a bad team. When you get to the World Cup anything can happen. Can Iran beat Nigeria and Bosnia? Absolutely."

 

- All quotes gained first-hand, unless otherwise stated

Marcus George is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent who is based in Dubai from where he covers Iranian news and current affairs.

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