Mission impossible might be possible for Iran at World Cup
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Mission impossible might just be possible for Iran.
The scoreboard inside St. Petersburg Stadium read "MOROCCO 0, IRAN 1," a beautiful sight for the thousands of Iranians — women, as well as men — who flocked to Russia to see their team win a World Cup match for only the second time in the nation's history.
Hours later, an equally important image. With Spain and Portugal finishing 3-3 in Sochi, the Group B standings show Iran sitting proudly at the top, above two of the world's best and most illustrious teams.
"When the draw (for the tournament) came," Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said, "(we thought) either we change World Cups and we go for the next one because the group is so difficult, or we go for this one.
"It's an impossible mission. But our attitude is try to make the impossible possible."
Back home, the people of Iran took to the streets in a rare show of celebration.
"It was one big illegal disco," said Fowad Soltani, a 35-year-old Iran fan who was still savoring the team's last-gasp victory over Morocco a day later. "It was a few hours of freedom for 80 million people."
Morocco striker Aziz Bouhaddouz became an unlikely favorite in Iran, scoring the injury-time own-goal that settled a tight and tense game . Iran defended superbly, soaked up pressure, then delivered the late sucker punch.
"The performance of our defenders was a masterpiece," Iran attacking midfielder Saman Ghoddos was quoted as telling the country's semi-official ISNA news agency.
It was the first time Iran has won its first group match at the World Cup — its only other win came 20 years ago against the United States — so the team heads into its second game with the pressure off. In a way, Queiroz's team can take a chance against Spain in Kazan on Wednesday.
But don't bet against the Iranians pulling off another famous result. Queiroz hasn't just forged a defensively robust team that is proving very hard to break down — it had nine clean sheets in 10 games in qualifying. The Portuguese coach has also created something of an "us against the world" mentality inside the Iranian camp, with political disputes and sanctions often stopping the team from arranging friendly matches against major nations and also preventing the players from wearing their sportswear.
Ahead of the World Cup, Nike said it would not be providing soccer shoes to Iran for the World Cup because of American sanctions currently in place against the country.
"We have no pitches, no (training) camps, sanctions," Queiroz said in a message to FIFA. "I think it's my duty to say, 'Let my boys play football. Let them enjoy football. They're not against anybody.'
"The main value of FIFA is to put politics apart and this is not what's going on. (The players) showed (against Morocco) they deserve to be treated like all the other players in the world."
It is against this backdrop that Iran heads into games against Spain and Portugal (in Saransk on June 25), looking to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup for the first time.
Tehran is on tenterhooks.
"If the game against Morocco was the World Cup final for us," Queiroz said, "the game against Spain will be the Universe Cup final."
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this story.
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80