After becoming the first West Asian country to qualify for the World Cup, in 1978, Iran took exactly two decades to play in the World Cup again, courtesy of a play-off victory against Australia on away-goals rule. In fact, after France 1998, the Iranians could qualify again after eight years in Germany, where they couldn’t cross the first round hurdle.
Close on the heels of their shock loss 0-1 away loss to Lebanon in last month’s Asian Group IV World Cup qualifier, team coach Carlos Queiroz now faces an uphill task when Iran take on a formidable South Korea in a crucial home match next Tuesday. The famed Portuguese will have to use his wealth of experience to guide Iran to the 2014 World Cup.
Iran, as we know from memory, had been a superb team from the 1960s to the 1980s. But the former powerhouses of Asian football have struggled, even at continental level, where their performances have left a lot to be desired. They failed to make it to the Asian Cup semi finals in Doha last year, a fact which definitely hurt their fans.
Lebanon not only earned their first-ever win against Iran, they also ended the latter’s 13-match unbeaten qualifying record.
After the Korea match, Iran will host the unpredictable Uzbeks on November 14, in another crucial match on their home ground. Wins in both games should strengthen their position in the group.
At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Iran made their third appearance, but it was not an impressive one, as they left the tournament with a point after a 1-1 draw against debutantes Angola. In their last World Cup qualification campaign, their erratic form saw them finish behind South Korea, North Korea and Saudi Arabia to miss out on the trip to South Africa.
In fact, Iran have not progressed beyond the group phases at a World Cup. They finished their debut campaign in ’78 with a point, courtesy a 1-1 draw against Scotland.
Their first win came in their second appearance in 1998, when the golden generation of Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri and Mehdi Mahdavikia came up with a memorable 2-1 victory against the US.
Upon his appointment, Queiroz recalled the talented Ali Karimi, a playmaker who has figured prominently for Iran in the qualifiers over the past three World Cups.
Filling the void left by Mahdavikia is captain Javad Nekounam, who has quickly established his place as the team’s talisman. Besides the leadership he brings to the team, the Esteghlal player provides creativity alongside former Osasuna team-mate Masoud Shojaei.
But an injury to central defender Hadi Aghili will be a big blow to the Middle Eastern nation. The Qatar Sports Club defender injured his thigh muscle during the match against Al Rayyan in the Qatar Stars League last month, and will be out at least for a couple of weeks.
Queiroz, who has already changed the long-standing central defence partnership of Aghili and Seyed Hosseini by replacing the latter with Pejman Montazeri, will have to change his central backs again for the crucial match against South Korea.
On a positive note, Esteghlal’s influential midfielder Mojtaba Jabbari has resumed his training with the club, but it is not yet known if Queiroz will pick him for the South Korea game.