If preparing for a major tournament meant finding ways to undermine your chances of success then the Iran Football Federation (IFF) has mastered the art of preparation. Team Melli had played two international friendlies since the World Cup. During that time, three months were wasted due to protracted discussions between the IFF, the country’s Ministry of Sports and Carlos Queiroz over a contract extension for the Portuguese head coach. Eventually ink was put to the paper by all concerned. Nevertheless, Queiroz managed to mastermind 3 narrow victories in Group C, and a place in the last 8, where Iran fell short to Iraq in a controversy filled penalty shoot-out defeat. Iranians misery was prolonged by an appeal against the presence of an Iraqi player who had failed a doping test only months earlier. As predicted, the result of the match was not over-turned.
Iran’s major preparation for the Asian Cup had come in the shape of South Korea, at the Azadi Stadium in November, after the visitors agreed not to charge the hosts a fee and, in a subsequent pre-tournament friendly against Iraq where Queiroz put out, what was thought to be, a reserve side. Team Melli bettered the Koreans thanks to substitute Sardar Azmoun’s first international goal. The match was largely dominated by the Koreans just as most of the recent match-ups between the two sides. But Team Melli’s counter-attacking game seems to be the Koreans Achilles heel as they took another Korean scalp. The pattern of that game is mirrored anytime Iran takes on any opponent of decent quality.
Similarly, in the second friendly game, Azmoun scored the winner after he broke free from the last defender and coolly slotted the ball into the goal with the outside of his right boot. More importantly, Queiroz gave first starts to Morteza Pouraliganji, a defensive midfielder playing center back for the first time, and Vouria Ghafouri, a right-sided player from Sepahan. Both would go on to start at the Asian Cup. They would be joined by the impressive Azmoun from the second group game onwards.
Queiroz’s Functional and Robust Team Melli
Carlos Queiroz has created a mentally robust, highly structured and functional counter-attacking side, starting largely in a 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 formation. His approach is somewhat criticized by certain domestic observers, who include Iranian club managers or ex-managers such as Amir Ghalenoei and Hamid Derakhshan, managers of Tehran’s “Big Two” Esteghlal and Persepolis, who advocate for an Iranian in charge. His side had not conceded a goal, at the Asian Cup, until being reduced to 10 men against Iraq. Queiroz has largely stayed loyal to the older generation of players, who have formed the backbone of the national side for the better part of the last decade. Initially he did not feel younger replacements had the quality to come into play, without hurting the team’s chances in the short-term. However, the Portuguese, always pragmatic, having witnessed dips in the physical conditions of a few of his older regulars, was not afraid to make tough decisions when he felt them in the interest of the side. This was illustrated by the 11th hour decision to install a new goalkeeper, Alireza Haghighi, with almost no international experience, at the World Cup. Similar decisions have now taken place with Pouraliganji,
Ghafouri and Azmoun, who scored a wonderful Bergkamp-esque winner against Qatar. Others such as Vahid Amiri and Soroosh Rafeie also figured at the Asian Cup.
If one took a step back and objectively assessed the work the Portuguese has done, it would be hard to fault him. From arranging friendly matches thanks to his contacts in different countries (he recently convinced a few South African club sides to put out sides against Team Melli during its training camp in the country), to choosing the team’s base, arranging flights as well as handling his own role and responsibilities, which included qualifying for the World Cup and putting on relatively acceptable performances, Quieroz has had his work cut out in Iran. Ultimately, his legacy will depend a lot upon whether he will be the man given the task of continuing to rebuild the side. He has already given a sneak peek of how he sees the future panning out with the introduction of a younger generation of players during the Asian Cup. At the same time, no other manager in the history of Team Melli has received the sort of support and faith that the squad has given the Portuguese.
One Eye on Today, Other on Future
Queiroz had an aging group of players at the World Cup, and took most of the key members of that squad again to the Asian Cup. During the Korea friendly match, Iran started with 6 players over the age of 30, as well as two others who would be over-30 by the time the next World Cup comes along in 2018. A major rebuilding job is long overdue. In comparison, South Korea has named only 2 players over the age of 30 in its Asian Cup Squad, whilst Japan only 4, including a goalkeeper. To be fair, Queiroz introduced a number of younger squad players for the Asian Cup, a decision which was seen as unlikely only one month
On one hand, it is understandable that Queiroz has deferred the rebuilding process, to a degree, preferring to focus on immediate results, as Iranian football lacks a long-term blue-print to follow, whilst the manager knows that his future in the job depends on results gained due to the nature of the press scrutiny and domestic “expert” critics. On the other hand, Team Melli desperately needs the injection of new blood if it’s to progress. The backbone of the side is well past its best and the team lacks genuine pace and incisive creativity. The introduction of Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who appeared briefly, and Sardar Azmoun, who starred at the tournament, would change that to a degree going forward. Team Melli is currently far better being the underdog against stronger opposition such as Japan or Korea. Against Bahrain, after an initial 25 minutes in which Bahrain dominated, Iran began to settle down and its superior set of players made the difference at the end. Both goals came from set pieces. Against Qatar, a tense and even first half was followed by a moment of magic by Azmoun before Iran settled for the lead and began dropping deeper, inviting Qatari pressure. Team Melli held out but the final 30 minutes was nail-biting. Iran was dominated virtually from start to finish against the UAE but its defence kept the Emiratis at bay without giving away any clear-cut opportunities. Eventually, a final 10 minute spell of pressure resulted in a winning goal, from another set piece, through dropped striker Reza Ghoochannehjad, who had come off the bench. Against Iraq, Team Melli was as adventurous as it has been in recent times. It dominated most of the first half and was good value for a 1 goal lead through Ghafouri’s pin-point cross and Azmoun’s bullet header. However, an inexplicable red card for left back Mehrdad Pouladi changed the whole complexion of the match. Iran surprisingly lost their shape for the first 15 minutes of the second half and allowed Iraq back into it. A back and forth marathon ended up 3-3 at the end of extra time and the lottery of penalty kicks went the way of the Iraqis.
What Happens Next?
A number of players will probably bid goodbye to the national team in the coming days. Captain Nekounam was in tears after the penalty shoot-out. At 34, he won’t take part in another Asian Cup and shouldn’t figure at the World Cup, were Iran to qualify. Teymourian, 31, may still have an outside chance to play at the next World Cup but his role must be reduced. Finding replacements for these two, who have formed the heart and soul of the side for almost a decade will be a huge task for Queiroz. However, their lack of mobility, relative to their younger days, has also meant that Team Melli played a slow-paced possession game for many years until Queiroz changed the style in the run-up to the final 3 World Cup Qualifiers in 2013. Masoud Shojaei, one of Queiroz’ favorite players, as well as Heydari should both walk away from the team now too. A major question mark remains over Jalal Hosseini’s immediate role with the side. At 32, he is not the oldest center back out there. He proved it by forming a great partnership with Pouraliganji, who may end of in defensive midfield in the position vacated by the captain. At the same time, the likes of Ashkan Dejagah, arguably Iran’s star player during the first two matches, Pouladi, Ghoochannehjad, the newly introduced and impressive Ghafouri will all be on the wrong
side of 30 when the World Cup starts.
On brighter notes, Amiri looked good as a left winger, Rafeie has the potential to replace Shojaei, whilst the likes of Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh have already shown their worth to the team. Azmoun, 20, is already showing signs that he is heir to legendary striker Ali Daei in a position that few Asian teams have quality within. He is surely destined for bigger things in European football too. The Dutch-based Jahanbakhsh, 21, has had exceptional form with NEC Nijmegen this season. He has scored 8 goals and assisted another 12 in only 20 starts in the Jupiler League. Both of the youngsters are likely to play an integral role as Team Melli continues the rebuilding process.Haghighi in goal has continued to prove to be a safe pair of hands although the highly-rated Alireza Beiranvand, another Naft player, who made his debut before the tournament started, will surely challenge him over the next couple of years. Injured defender Pejman Montazeri, only 31, may come back into contention too.
Going Forward with Queiroz
Across the board, a semi-final spot for Team Melli was seen as acceptable by most people back home. Iran fell short, again on penalty kicks, as well as in controversial circumstances, which probably aids Queiroz. The Portuguese took pre-emptive strikes against some of his critics including Ghalenoei and Derakhshan after the Iraq defeat. He also highlighted that to take Iran to the next level, one which includes attacking football, the IFF needs to play a more instrumental role. His assertion is not groundless. All of Iran’s opponents had played around 15 matches in the run-up to the tournament and the link-up between their players was evidence of better preparations. Objectively, Iran is yet to master its counter-attacking game and largely benefited from set pieces and second ball recoveries in the final third. On the flip side, its defensive side of the game makes it difficult to create many clear-cut opportunities against it. Needless to say, Team Melli has failed to become Asian champions since 1976. However, Iran has not lost in 90 minutes at the Asian Cup since 1996, when they lost to this year’s Quarter Finals opponents, Iraq, again.
If Queiroz is able to get better link-up play, involving more support players for the lone striker, during transition from defence to counter attack, then Team Melli may be able to add a crucial ingredient to its game. Either way, he is the right man to continue the work that he started almost 5 years ago. He has also shown that his pragmatism was a necessity and that he has the flexibility to make changes when it benefits the team. One of the Portuguese’s major achievements has been the team spirit and camaraderie that he has instilled, at a level which had never existed in Team Melli previously, at least not in the modern era. This achievement must not be underestimated in polarized Iran. The next few years will be an important period for Team Melli, culminating in the 2018 World Cup, as the last surviving members of a generation that included the likes of Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi and others are phased out from the national team. Replacing them will be a tough task and the procedure must be handled with care. At the same time, expectations will surely include a more adventurous style of football. Queiroz has already shown that he’s the safest hands to navigate such circumstances.
Iran has been home to some legendary Asian footballers. Hamburg’s adopted son Mehdi Mahdavikia is one, and who can forget Khodadad Azizi? Australians certainly can’t. The late “Eagle of Asia” Nasser Hejazi is widely considered one of Asia’s greatest goalkeepers of all time. Ali Karimi and Javad Nekounam both left a mark on European football too. Record international goal-scorer, Ali Daei, is probably the biggest name of them all and is known to most football fans everywhere. However, it’s been a while since the conveyor belt of talent in Iran looked like producing another footballer in the ilk of those. That could all change with NEC Nijmegen’s forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
Born in a small town with a population of just about 2,000 people, the 21-year old Iran international is a rare breed of footballer. He’s level-headed and shown willingness to patiently develop his career step by step. Eighteen months ago he had a big decision to make. Inundated with offers from Iran’s biggest clubs, no one would have blamed him had he blinked, taken the cash and moved to either Esteghlal or Persepolis, the country’s “Big Two”. Jahanbakhsh, who possesses a burst of pace to go along with an athletic 5’11 frame, decided to look the other way. That way took him to NEC Nijmegen. The decision was a tough one and in no small part influenced by Mahdavikia, his team-mate during a brief season at Damash Gilan. Mahdavikia convinced him that his future would prosper if he took the plunge at the age of 20. He has, since, even travelled to Holland to visit the young forward in order to ensure he’s settling in well.
Jahanbakhsh was instantly made to feel at home by his club, and his introduction to Dutch football was accelerated. He made his debut almost immediately against RKC Waalwijk and within a few days had scored his first goal for the club in the KNVB Cup. Carlos Queiroz, under pressure at the time for not calling up one or two younger players from the domestic league, publicly hailed Jahanbakhsh as an example to other Iranian footballers who had chosen the easy path and stayed in Iran for more money.
Soon enough, the NEC player was called up to Team Melli and made his debut in October 2013. His first international goal came during his 2nd cap in the Asian Cup Qualification game away to Thailand. Almost instantly, analysts knew he had booked his ticket to Brazil. With his confidence boosted, he returned to Holland, with a chip on his shoulder, and finished the calendar year with 3 goals and 2 assists in December. Anton Janssen, his club head coach, was still figuring out where Jahanbakhsh’s best position was, having played the versatile forward on both wings as well as in an advanced striker’s role. But what was clear quickly was that the Iranian provided pace, endeavour, an eye for a key pass, a decent aerial challenge, good finishing and a determination to constantly press his opponent onto the back foot.
Whilst he was making waves in the Eredivisie, it was not until he came off the bench to score twice against Ajax in Amsterdam, at the end of the season, salvaging his side a 2-2 draw, that his stock was highest. He finished his maiden campaign with 5 goals and 4 assists in 33 games (only 13 starts) but disappointingly found his side relegated. His disappointment was soon forgotten as Queiroz confirmed that Jahanbakhsh would be one of the 23 players going to the World Cup. He figured off the bench during all 3 games in Brazil, a role that he had grown accustomed to in the Eredivisie, but proved to be a lively impact player.
Expectations were that Jahanbakhsh would move to another club rather than play in the Jupiler League during the 2014/15 season. It may turn out to be a blessing in disguise that Ruud Brood, NEC’s incoming manager, felt that Jahanbakhsh was key to the side going straight back up. NEC rejected unnamed bids from one or two other Eredivisie clubs (thought to include Heerenveen) but the Iranian did not throw a fuss. He kept his head down and has proven to be a revelation this season. Subsequently, he’s started every match NEC has played this season, scoring 8 goals and laying off 12 assists as his side have been a constant at the top of the table. A number of bigger clubs have been watching him closely and he is well aware of it. He’s now nailed his position on the right side of NEC’s attack, a spot which looks like being his for Team Melli during the upcoming Asian Cup.
Recently, Jahanbakhsh has gone on Dutch TV to state that he’s happy to continue playing for NEC and is in no rush to move to another club. He also confirmed that he prefers to stay in Holland as he continues to develop before eventually moving onto a bigger league. With the Asian Cup on the horizon in January, Jahanbakhsh, along with team-mate Sardar Azmoun are expected to play more integral roles for the national team as Queiroz tries to inject some much needed spark into his functional side. If Jahanbakhsh plays to his potential then a move to a bigger league may happen sooner rather than later.
Iran’s national team, or Team Melli as it is widely known, held its own at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and probably gained a few more neutral fans after their performance against Argentina. Despite going out at the group stage with a solitary point, there were momentary flashes which could have changed the outcome of Iran’s destiny. Nevertheless, the general expectations, from the 75 million national team managers in Iran, had been one of hopeful optimism which would have had Iran on 4 points and scraping through to the second round.
Whilst Team Melli had historically seen itself as one of the leaders in Asian football, and subsequently felt an onus and expectation to attack the opposition whomever they may be (a style perfectly exhibited by teams of the 1970s, as well as the 1996 Asian Cup side and the side that failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002), the reality had been a stark contrast for a long time. Iran no longer instills the same fear in opponents as it did in the past and the gap between Team Melli and teams, such as the UAE, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Qatar among others, has never been closer. Despite one off results against the likes of Japan and Korea, one could argue the gap between the real pacesetters in Asian football and Iran has never been wider either.
Carlos Quieroz, the Portuguese Team Melli manager, is a man who has been able to produce a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts since he took over the helm. He has developed a mentally robust, defensively compact, counter-attacking team that is at its best when up against stronger opponents. Having taken over a team that had been plagued with an inability to cut open teams and a permanent slow tempo style for many years, Queiroz, a rational man, was at the crossroads going into Iran’s final World Cup Qualifiers against Lebanon, Qatar and South Korea. That is when Iran’s fortunes changed, matched by a distinctively new, more pragmatic, style of football.
Team Melli currently features an aging squad, with a number of key players well past their prime. In fact, one could argue that the side has still not successfully replaced retired stalwarts like Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ali Karimi, Karim Bagheri, and even the likes of Vahid Hashemian and Rahman Rezaei. Those players formed a strong backbone of the side for a longer period than they probably should have based on their age and the trend is now repeating with a current crop which includes captain Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Pejman Montazeri, Andranik Teymourian and even Masoud Shojaei among others. During the recent friendly match at the Azadi Stadium against Korea, Iran’s starting line-up featured 6 players over 30, none of which should realistically expect to feature at the 2018 World Cup even if Iran progresses. In fact, other than goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi (26), utility player Ehsan Hajsafi (24), inside-forward Alireza Jahanbakhsh (21) and possibly Ashkan Dejagah (28) and Reza Ghoochannejad (27) no other member of the starting line-up should be able to make it to the World Cup in Russia other than via a tourist visa. Nevertheless, the over-30s are still forming the backbone of the national team in the short-term in order to keep the side competitive. In contrast, Korea had only called up 2 players, over the age of 30, into their squad for the match. Needless to say, without the aging players in question, it is unlikely that Team Melli would have qualified for the 2014 World Cup. Queiroz, a realist, is under pressure to deliver at least a semi-finals outing at the upcoming Asian Cup, and will utilize that spine to maximize the possibility. However, at what cost to longer term fortunes?
Professional Football a Double-edged Sword
The introduction of “professional” football in 2001 has not reaped the rewards towards the progress of football there. Salaries have been inflated and less players choose to move abroad, even if they may be technically good enough, due to the lifestyle that they are able to have domestically. At most, a few players move on short-term contracts to neighboring Gulf countries such as UAE and Qatar for a short and sweet pay-day. More and more average players make much more money than they would have dreamed of and automatically equate that to having “made” it. This hinders their progress up the footballing ladder. At the end of the day, despite all the success that provincial clubs have in Iran, the “Big Two”, Esteghlal and Persepolis, continue to lure their best players with inflated salaries. Those players rarely if ever continue on the same impressive path that they had been on with their previous clubs. There are exceptions to this trend and they include the likes of Haghighi, Sardar Azmoun, Jahanbakhsh and Saeed Ezatollahi among others who all took the risk to move abroad at a younger age than had been done by any Iranian footballers in the past. This has been a refreshing change and applauded by Quieroz too.
Domestically, the Iran Professional League (IPL) has remained competitive with only Sepahan able to retain the title since the league’s new format at the turn of the century. However, on a continental level, Iran has had 2 losing finalists during this period and no winners. In fact, the last Iranian club to triumph in Asia’s premier club competition was Pas Tehran but that was over 20 years ago at the end of the 1992/93 season. Iran has only had 3 champions at that level since the tournament’s inception in 1967. Korea, on 10, Japan, on 5 and Saudi Arabia, on 4, are all placed ahead of Iran in that respect. On the international level, Team Melli last won the Asian Cup in 1976 and has not appeared in the final since. Is it justified to really classify Iran as being among the strongest footballing nations at Asian level today?
This brings us back full circle. Iranians are a demanding people and sometimes their expectations are further from reality than they would like to admit (or even realize). The commendable emergence of volleyball in the country has also cast another shadow over modern football. Iranian football has historically chosen the short-term solution over long-term planning. One could even argue that this may be a culturally-imprinted facet of being Iranian. Needless to say, Iran’s preparations for the recent World Cup was hampered by incompetence, from a federation and organization, point of view. Of course, in typical Iranian fashion, the blame was again deflected upon others, just as was the soap opera that was Queiroz’s contract extension thereafter.
Considering the parameters of existence within the football environment, how fair is it to request one man, Quieroz, to build a long-term legacy? Would football “people” in the country accept a first round elimination at the Asian Cup if it meant introducing an untested, younger generation, of footballers, who had many question marks hanging over their actual ability? Would Quieroz survive to remain at the helm and build a competitive squad for the 2018 World Cup in that scenario? The answer is probably no on both fronts and intense pressure and scrutiny does not help anyone formulate a long-term strategy for footballing development. In fact, its not clear whether Team Melli would be able to build a competitive squad that can qualify for the 2018 World Cup at any rate, regardless of the players it selects. It may be wiser to begin casting an eye towards the 2022 World Cup and possibly, as well as gracefully, concede a step back in the shorter-term. Considering Team Melli’s recent “successes” at Asian level as well as only qualifying for every other World Cup, it may not hamper its standing that much even in the short-term.
Results in the Asian Cup will not really matter unless Iran, surprisingly, at least to this writer, goes further than the Quarter Finals, as that would provide the side a bye towards qualifying for the next installment 4 years down the line. Going up against emerging teams such as the UAE and Qatar as well as Bahrain places Iran in it’s “kryptonite” situation. In the modern era, Team Melli has faced far more problems against Arab opponents, especially those from the Gulf, than sides from the rest of Asia. Expectation will be on Team Melli to attack all 3 opponents but that is not its strong-suit and could result in very close, and nerve-wracking matches that may be decided by a mistake or moment of brilliance, one way or the other.
When is Tomorrow?
For decades, Iranian football had been blessed by technically gifted players, who were arguably superior in that respect to most of their counterparts at Asian level. This carried Iranian football for a long time at the expense of tactical, mental and coaching development (as well as many other off-the-pitch developments). However, the conveyor belt for talent stopped producing such players a long time ago. Masoud Shojaei is probably the last truly gifted technical Iranian player to emerge and he is now the wrong side of 30.
However, the time is now for giving more responsibility to emerging future stars Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh, both arguably good enough to start regularly for Team Melli, as well as maybe begin the slow introduction of Atletico Madrid youngster Ezatollahi. It may also be wise to give a real opportunity to players such as Soroush Rafeei (24), Vourya Ghafouri (27) and Omid Ebrahimi (27), all second half subs against Korea, to figure out whether they can step up to international level. Bigger questions exist over which players can emerge to replace both center backs, Hosseini and Montazeri, sooner rather than later, as well as the central midfield duo, Nekounam and, a seemingly out of shape and out of form, Andranik Teymourian, for so long a model of dedication and professionalism in Iranian football. The answers to these questions do not currently exist. Iran’s U-17 team last qualified for the 2013 World Cup, when it progressed to the second round. That squad was more or less elevated to the U-19 Asian age group but failed miserably to qualify for next year’s U-20 World Cup after a disappointing first-round elimination in Myanmar earlier this year. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping an eye on Gholizadeh, Hazami and Moharrami from that batch.
The truth is despite the popular belief, by many, that Iranian football is currently in transition, the process has not really started. Team Melli has pushed back its expiry date for longer than most people could have imagined through the assistance, to a certain degree, of Carlos Quieroz. However, this has delayed the inevitable and painful process of transition, which sides such as Saudi Arabia have been experiencing for almost a decade, and others such as Australia have done a slightly better job of in the last couple of years. It always helps when you have potentially good replacements to step into the older players shoes but that is not looking like it will be the case with Team Melli. The road ahead may be a rude awakening for many followers of the national team.