Three Hopes, One Fear: Iran at the 2018 World Cup


World Cup 2018

Iran enters the 2018 World Cup as the top team from Asia, having qualified for consecutive World Cups for the first time in the nation’s history. Team Melli will hope to fair better than their group stage knockout from the 2014 World Cup. However, grouped with powerhouses Spain and Portugal, the odds may be against Iran.

Hope 1 – The defensive acumen of Carlos Queiroz plays to their advantage. 

Hoping to build on their previous successful qualifying campaign, Iran retained the services of their manager Carlos Queiroz. Queiroz, a former Manchester United assistant manager under Alex Ferguson, has an indelible pedigree that includes guiding Portugal and South Africa to World Cups.  Under the Portuguese manager, Iran has become the highest ranked side in Asia—ranking 36th in the world—and did not lose once during qualifying.

Iran has managed one of the stingiest defenses under the guidance of Queiroz. The 2014 incarnation of the side kept an ever-dangerous Argentina from scoring for 90 minutes, before seeing their hard work undone by Leo Messi. Team Melli conceded a mere five goals while qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and nearly went the final round of qualifying without allowing a goal, before Syria scored twice in the final match. Iran will need that kind of parsimonious play when they face attacking juggernauts Portugal and Spain.


Hope 2 – That they can find some goals. 

While defensive prowess earned them a spot in the 2018 World Cup, Iran will be hoping for more balanced play when they hit the field in Russia, and they might just have the players to do it. The two most prominent attackers for Iran are Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh.

Azmoun plays for Russian side Rubin Kazan, where he has five goals in 26 appearances during the 2017-2018 season. It is perhaps his performances with the Iranian national team that have garnered him the nickname “The Iranian Messi” as well as the interest of several top-flight sides, not limited to Liverpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Celtic. With Team Melli, Azmoun has scored 23 goals in 32 caps.

A winger for AZ Alkmaar, Jahanbakhsh was the top scorer in the Eredivisie for 2017-2018 season, with 21 goals. Alongside the goals, he contributed 12 assists. Iran will hope that Jahanbakhsh can translate his stellar club form to the international game. He has four goals in 37 caps for Iran.

Hope 3: That the European-based players will shine.

Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh might be the most successful Iranians playing in Europe, but they are far from the only ones. Iran’s 2018 roster includes 12 European-based players. That is seven more than Iran fielded in 2014. Karim Ansarifard, who plays at Olympiacos, finished second in goals scored for 2017-2018 Greek Superleague with 17. Another Iranian player finding success in Europe is forward Saman Ghoddos. Ghoddos plays for Swedish side Östersunds FK and turned in several impressive performances during their short-lived Europa League campaign.

Team Melli will hope that an abundance of players plying their trade at a higher level will equate to success when they meet two of Europe’s most dangerous sides Spain and Portugal.

The big fear: The lack of quality tune-up matches will leave them ill-prepared.

While Iran quickly qualified for the World Cup, they struggled to find quality opponents to prepare them for the tournament. Three friendlies scheduled for Iran in the build-up to the World Cup were cancelled. A match against Syria was nixed, then Greece, and Kosovo, brought in as a replacement for Greece, backed out as well.

The three cancellations left Iran with only four friendlies in the build-up to the World Cup. The matches were against Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan, and Turkey, with a forthcoming match against Lithuania. While none of these sides are bad, none are exactly world beaters, and combined with the fact that they all sent less than first choice sides, seem far from ample preparation for a tournament consisting of the world’s best.

Iran will hope, despite the scheduling adversity, to be ready to face Morocco June 15.


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