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World Cup 2022 - Iran So Far Away?

Iranian National Football Badge

With less than a week before England open their World Cup campaign against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar, might there be cause for some degree of cautious optimism in Tehran (England's recent dodgy run of form notwithstanding), subject to the outcome of proceedings to have their boys given their marching orders?




After something of a saga over who would lead Team Melli into the tournament following their qualification after a 1-0 home win over Iraq in January, Carlos Queiroz is back for a second spell following the ousting of Drajan Skočić in September. The Croat having got them there by setting an all- time high of 25 points from ten games in the third round of the Asian qualifiers.



And yet a look at their recent history under Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant at Manchester United probably offers a big clue as to why, despite that, dressing room politics were believed to be behind the decision. Several players favoured his return, and so Queiroz is back.

Of the six times Iran have got to a World Cup- their début appearance in 1978 was followed by a twenty year wait for a second, then 2006, 2014 and 2018- they're still waiting to even make it out of the group stage. They’ve won only two games on the biggest of international stages, against the USA, who they'll face again in Group B as well as England and Wales, in what was a highly politically charged encounter in France, and on Russian soil.



Not until their 1997 qualifying play-off victory over Australia, settled on the away goals rule following two draws, would Iranian fans almost become accustomed to seeing their team in amongst the big boys. This following the lean years immediately post- Revolution from 1979, when they largely withdrew from international competition as a by- product of an eight year war with Iraq following and its sweeping of the Ayatollah into power...



France 98 would at least offer them a welcome back following a damp squib of a first go in Argentina. Where they finished bottom of Group 4 after an introductory 3-0 defeat to Holland was followed by a 1-1 draw with Scotland, Iraj Daneifard cancelling out an own goal by Andranik Eskandarian, prior to a final 4-0 thumping by Peru.



Their next attempt opened with a 1-0 defeat to what was then Yugoslavia, thanks to a free kick by Siniša Mihajlović, before what could have escalated into a diplomatic incident against the US, not helped by Ayatollah Khamenei banning his country's players from pre- match formalities!



"According to FIFA regulations team B should walk towards team A for the pre-match handshakes, but Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei gave express orders that the Iranian team must not walk towards the Americans."



FIFA were able to negotiate something of a solution in that the “visitors” were allowed to approach their Iranian counterparts in a workaround of the usual home- away protocol, but even this was nothing in comparison to what was threatening to spill over into the stands, as FourFourTwo would recall of the game...


Off the pitch a terrorist organisation had bought 7,000 tickets for the game and were planning to stage a protest during the match. Mujahedin Khalq were an Iraq-based group funded by Saddam Hussein whose main aim was to destabilise the Iranian regime.”



Against which backdrop it isn't too much of a surprise, perhaps, that the Americans became Iran's first ever World Cup scalps, the goals coming courtesy of Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia. Nor would it have been much of one to see them sign off with a 2-0 loss to Germany.



Following failure to make it to the first Asia- hosted World Cup in 2002, coach Miroslav Blažević was dismissed and his assistant Branko Ivanković took over. He eventually made up for that failure by getting them on the plane to Germany, as they and Japan became the first two countries to make it to the 2006 tournament.



Once more, though, they wouldn't last long, defensive lapses leading to a 3-1 win for Mexico in their opening Group D game, Yahya Golmohammadi netting for the Youzpalangan (Cheetahs). Losing 2-0 to Portugal in their second outing was the final nail in the coffin, before a 1-1 draw with Angola finished things off.



Not long after they returned home the country was slapped with a temporary FIFA suspension thanks to government interference in football matters, but the ban ultimately lasted less than a month. Iran's all- time top scorer Ali Daei, who also made a cameo during the Qatar 2022 group stage draw, was appointed manager in March 2008 after initial talks with Javier Clemente stalled following his refusal to move over full- time from Spain.



Daei lasted for one year, his sacking seeing Afshin Ghotbi ushered in and politics once more rearing its head during a final 2010 Asian Cup qualifier against South Korea. Several players donned green armbands in an act of protest, supporting opposition candidate Mir- Hossein Mousavi against incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.



National newspaper Iran subsequently reported that at least four players had copped life bans from the national team for their stance against perceived irregularities in the counting of votes, but the FA dismissed this as nothing but lies and a mischievous act.” Coach Ghotbi was compelled to add that his employer "has not taken any official stand on this issue."



The recurring theme of an Asian Cup quarter- final exit, this time in 2011, soon did for him nonetheless and Queiroz's first spell began on April 4 that same year. Signing a two and a half year deal, he began by doing something previously unheard of for such a closed shop and invited players from the Iranian diaspora outside the country into the national team set up. Former Germany youth international Ashkan Dejagah was persuaded to commit, scoring twice against Qatar on his début to ensure Iran topped their group, former young Dutchman Reza Goochannehad was also among those given a chance.



Other examples of those eventually selected to represent Iran under Queiroz include Daniel Davari, Swedish-Iranians Omid Nazari and Saman Ghoddos, and Iranian- American Steven Beitashour. And it was Reza who would score their sole goal of the 2014 tournament in a Group F defeat to Bosnia, a 3-1 reverse spelling their end after an opening 0-0 draw and indeed first World Cup clean sheet against Nigeria and a 1-0 loss to Argentina thanks to a late strike from Lionel Messi in Brazil.



Bringing things up to date, Queiroz kept his job following another Asian Cup quarter final loss, to Iraq, avoiding the fate which had befallen many of his predecessors. His reforms perhaps seen as starting to bear fruit going into the 2018 World Cup in Russia, their second win in their overall history at the tournament coming courtesy of an own goal against Morocco before a 1-0 loss to Spain, Diego Costa's goal proving enough and VAR the villain as an equaliser was ruled out.



Some face was saved with a 1-1 draw with Portugal, Karim Ansarifard's penalty not enough to scrape them out of the group stage- though the four points they gained in attempting to do so remains Iran's best overall performance at a World Cup. While surely not enough to be giving Gareth Southgate nightmares, he may well pause for thought, as long as FIFA ignores a growing clamour for them to be kicked out entirely over the thorny issue of women's admission into stadiums to watch their team. Something which happened for the first time since pre- Revolution when they were allowed in to watch a 14- 0 home qualifying win over Cambodia.



Nevertheless, Spanish law firm Ruiz- Huerta and Crespo have submitted an official letter to FIFA calling for the Iranian FA's suspension, which would then lead to the boot before a ball has been kicked against the Three Lions- watch this space.

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