Today, following Japan’s profile, and after a 5-article break to cover issues complementary to the cup’s turf action (see titles at bottom), we return to our profiles, provided in reverse alphabetical order, of the 32 teams which qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar with a focus on Iran.
Team Melli (meaning the national team in Persian) are participating in their sixth World Cup and third in consecutive order. They have always left the cup at the group stage but have always fought until the final whistle. In Russia 2018 they only missed out on progressing by one point while they had memorable games defeating Morocco 1-0, drawing 1-1 with Portugal, and only losing 0-1 to Spain. In their win and draw they scored at the 90+5m and the 90+3m respectively.
Their last two preparatory games should be instructive to Iran’s Portuguese head coach Carlos Queiroz, as they will be against Uruguay and Senegal two Qatar-bound teams who have been in good form going into the World Cup.
Placed in Group B with FIFA-ranked England (5), USA (14), and Wales (19), the Iranians (22) know they have their work cut out for them. Most pundits give the Persian team no chance to progress from their group and there is little evidence the experts are wrong. Though every team is ranked above them, the Iranians have nothing to lose by going all out to prove themselves and they will be a thorn for any team that does not take them seriously. That said, they should be going home after their third game. Iran’s home kit colors are all white with green and red highlights and their away colors are all red with a green highlight on the shirt.
Iran, an Asian country reaching from the Persian Gulf on the south to Turkey on the west and the Caspian Sea in the north, has an area of 636,372 square miles of mostly mountainous land which contains 11 of the world’s 13 climates. Iran has a long and storied history dating back over 300,000 years and coming to an early head with the civilization of Elam (a neighbor of Sumer) who had developed its own cuneiform as early as 3,000 BC. Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550 BC-330 BC), one of the largest empires in world history, only fell to Alexander the Great after the battle of Gaugamela (331 BC). Today Iran is a unitary theocratic Islamic republic where 99% of the population of 83.2M people are Muslims who speak Persian. The country has a GDP of $1.6T and an HDI score of 0.774 (high), and have a deep cultural lineage that encompasses Greek, Roman, Russian, Arabian, and east Asian influences. Iran has given us Zoroaster, the Cyrus Cylinder, and has been a political and military foe of the USA for decades.
Squad (which may change before the cup given injuries, form, and coaching choices—teams mentioned are subject to change given transfers): Goalkeepers—Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Hossein Hosseini (Esteghlal), Amir Abedzadeh (Ponferradina), and Payam Niazmand (Sepahan); Defenders—Sadegh Moharrami (Dinamo Zagreb), Shojae Khalilzadeh (Al-Ahli), Milad Mohammadi (AEK Athens), Morteza Pouraliganji (Persepolis), Hossein Kanaanizadegan (Al-Ahli), Saleh Hardani (Esteghlal), Majid Hosseini (Kayserispor), Omid Noorafkan (Sepahan), Ramin Rezaeian (Sepahan), and Abolfazl Jalali (Esteghlal); Midfielders—Ehsan Hajsafi (AEK Athens), Saeid Ezatolahi (Vejle), Omid Ebrahimi (Al-Wakrah), Ahmad Nourollahi (Shabab Al-Ahli), Milad Sarlak (Persepolis), and Saman Ghoddos (Brentford); Strikers—Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Feyenoord), Mehdi Taremi (Porto), Karim Ansarifard (Omonia), Mehdi Torabi (Persepolis), Ali Gholizadeh (Charleroi), and Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen).
Path to Qatar
Iran were ranked first in the AFC World Cup 2022 qualifiers and were seeded into the Second Round where they were placed in Group C with Iraq, Bahrain, Hong Kong, and Cambodia. The first three teams were separated by a couple of points, but Iran came out on top with a +30-goal differential and only four goals conceded.
In the Third Round, they were placed in Group A with South Korea, UAE, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and from there they qualified directly to Qatar as the top team in the group followed by co-qualifiers South Korea, two points below on the final table.
Iran changed coaches twice since qualifiers began sacking Belgian Marc Wilmonts after early losses to Iraq and Bahrain, then sticking with Croatian Dragan Skocic who engineered eight wins in ten matches and secured the team’s qualification. But once qualified, things changed. Incoming Iranian Football Federation (IFF) President Mehdi Taj had made campaign promises to bring the 69-year-old Portuguese Carlos Queiroz back (he had coached Iran in the 2014 and 2018 World Cups) and he followed through. The IFF website put it in this terse manner: “Carlos Queiroz was chosen as the head coach of Iran’s national football team. In addition, Mr. Dragan Skocic, the former head coach…will be thanked for his efforts…”
The team is skilled and rely on compact defending and quick counterattacks spearheaded by their prolific offensive duo of Mehdi Taremi and Sandar Azmoun. Taremi, many consider the best player in the current Portuguese League having scored 20 goals and provided 12 assists in last year’s campaign for league champions Porto. Coach Queiroz has the team believing that their third cup appearance in a row is the charm.
The team is not exactly redolent of global talent, but it does have one of the most productive offensive units in Asia and have been in good form of late. Assuming they continue using their traditional 4-3-3 lineup two key players would be Karim Ansarifard of Cypriot League team Omonia and Feyenoord’s striker Alireza Jahanbakhsh either of whom could be on the same line as Azmoun and Taremi and could prove the linchpin of Iran’s scoring prowess.
Group and Tourney Prospects
Unfortunately for Iran, they will be facing one of the strongest England and USA teams in at least a generation aside from a Gareth Bale-inspired Wales wanting to make a splash in their first World Cup since 1958. In another group, Iran might feel they can progress. In this one, they still have hope as a single upset could make things possible. But their opponents are too strong and progressing in this cup, despite how close to home it will be for the Iranians, will be a leap too far.
Photo: Mehdi Taremi – Shuttertstock ID: 2161444053, by Alizada Studios
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