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.
The Asian Cup will kick off on January 9th as the hosts, Australia, look to start on the right foot against West Asian hopefuls Kuwait. 32 matches and almost 3 weeks later a new champion will be crowned. Champions Japan will look to retain the trophy and add to their record 4 titles. Korea will look to bounce back after a disappointing World Cup. Uzbekistan will try to begin to realize their potential at this level. West Asian hopefuls Iran, under the guidance of Carlos Quieroz, will look to break a four-decade drought. Established Asian players, including Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Javad Nekounam, Zheng Zhi and Tim Cahill will be known to most followers. Youngsters like Iraq’s Ali Adnan, UAE’s Ali Mabkhout, Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Australia’s Tommy Oar will be looking to etch their names in Asian football history.
With that said, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few Asian football experts, whose countries will be taking part at the tournament, for their views and predictions on what lies ahead.
Football Palestine, which can be found on Follow @FutbolPalestine, was founded in 2008 with the intent of providing accurate and detailed information about the Palestine national football team to an international audience. Their network, includes a blog, YouTube, and Twitter, is operated by Abdel-Rahman Hamed & Bassil Mikdadi and has been featured in prominent outlets such as Sports Illustrated, Slate, Metro, and BBC. We had the opportunity to have a brief chat with them about the Palestinian national team and Asian Cup in general.
Ahmad El Hassan, your national team manager, recently had to come out to defend himself after backlash from the fans over some of his selections. What happened?
He made some controversial decisions with his squad selection and was probably guilty of not communicating his reasons for making these decisions. El Hassan’s got a very rigid approach – he’s the boss and he wants the players to know that. For example, Hilal Musa helped Palestine qualify and he missed out on the squad because he didn’t show up to training in October (he had a broken hand). The fans are even more upset over the fact that three foreign-based center backs have been left out (Omar Jarun, Javier Cohene, and Daniel Kabir Mustafá) for unknown reasons. Cohene has since come out and said that injury will not allow him to participate although the PFA claimed that he didn’t respond to their calls and emails. Fans were really excited to have forward Matias Jadue on board and he would have been in the squad but some administrative error resulted in his nationality switch being filed incorrectly.
Considering the backlash, it seems that people back home are taking your participation seriously. What are the expectations for the side?
On paper, this is a very difficult group and the fans are aware of that. That said, Jordan are not the same team they were 18 months ago under Adnan Hamed and Iraq are not displaying the form that crowned them champions in 2007. Both sides haven’t won a game since March and their new coaching appointments are still trying to communicate their ideas to the players. It seems to the fans that if we could escape the game against Japan with a narrow loss then there would be enough points on the table in the next two games. The squad announcement has tempered expectations but with Ashraf Nu’man- maybe the dream scenario can play out.
Was it surprising that you qualified in the first place?
Yes and No. Preparation for the Challenge Cup was less than ideal. Palestine didn’t play any warm-up games, and the Challenge Cup was scheduled on non-FIFA matchdays. A whole host of strikers were ruled out due to injury. That said, Palestine were always favored to make it out of their qualifying group and the way they played in the Challenge Cup it was quite evident that they were the best of the bunch. Palestine has been in the ascendency since late 2011 and Asian Cup qualification via the Challenge Cup path seemed like an attainable goal.
For those who are not familiar with the side tell us what its main strength and weakness is?
We don’t have a lot of options in attack. Mahmoud Eid is the only out-and-out striker in the squad and over the past couple of years the lack of a goal-scorer means Palestine can sometimes struggle to translate good build-up play into results. Mahmoud Eid’s arrival might go some way towards solving this problem. The strength, despite the big name absences, is the defense and by the looks of it Ahmed El Hassan will have the side set up to frustrate the opposition (and the neutral fan).
Does this side have a future or is it just a flash in the pan?
Interesting question. Qualification represents an opportunity for Palestine, even if results don’t go their way in Australia the big game atmosphere will only make them better. Their FIFA ranking will most likely land them in Pot 2 for 2018 World Cup qualifying. This time around they’ll be able to leverage home-field advantage (they have yet to lose at home). I get the feeling that the opportunity is there but a lot depends on administration. The PFA needs to put the right people in charge in order to harness the potential of the players.
Which Palestinian player do you think we should watch out for in Australia?
Abed Jaber. He’s only 21 and at this time last year he wasn’t even on the national team radar but he has single-handedly solved Palestine’s problems at left back.
Which player from the other 15 sides do you think can emerge as a star at this tournament?
Sardar Azmoun of Iran.
How do you think the West Asian sides will do?
Well there are 10 of them so the deck is stacked in our favor. I think this tournament will be won by Australia or Japan and I don’t think that the West Asians in Group A or Group B will advance. My main reason for pessimism is due to the fact that too many national teams are coming into this tournament with new coaches.
Finally, who will win the 2015 Asian Cup?
On paper, Japan should run away with this competition. They are the most talented team in Asia by a country mile. That said, I think Australia – backed by their vociferous home support – could nick it.
Behzod Nazarov is an expert on Uzbeki football and is a leading journalist and writer in his homeland. He combines that role with his role as media officer of notable club Pakhtakor of Tashkent. He can be found on twitter on Follow @BehzodNazarov
Uzbekistan joined the AFC in 1992, and almost immediately won the Asian Games football tournament 2 years later. Many expected more success to follow but it hasn’t. Why?
Uzbekistan has a lot experienced players who played in the old USSR championship. When they became older we faced problems and couldn`t reach positive results. We faced problems with football schools from a grass-roots level as our best footballers had been educated outside our territories. We have also ben unlucky in crucial moments due to refereeing mistakes against us.
Maxim Shatskikh and Alexander Geynrikh were the stars of the past. Does this team have players on their level?
I think Odil Ahmedov, Server Jeparov, Vitaliy Denisov and Aziz Haydarov can play at a very high level. Denisov is one of the main players at Lokomotiv Moscow. Aziz is captain of Al Shabab. They could show good performances in Australia.
How good is Odil Ahmedov?
I think he is main player of team. He has been playing very well in the Russian Premier League and Europa League during the last few years. If he plays well, the national team can achieve good results.
What is the side’s main strength and weakness?
Main strength is teamwork and midfield of the side. But we have had problems in defense in the last few matches. We are not very strong when it comes to one to one battles on the pitch. We are not so good physically if we compare ourselves with Australia, Japan or Korea Republic.
How far can Uzbekistan go in the tournament?
We can go to the quarterfinals. But at that stage we may face Korea Republic or Australia. All depends on that match.
Is there any team you’d like to avoid?
Australia, Korea Republic and Japan, they are the strongest teams of Asia.
Which Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
We have two young stars – Sardor Rashidov and Jamshid Iskanderov. They can show their potential in Australia. Denisov, Ahmedov and Jeparov showed their levels in previous matches.
Which non-Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
So many potential stars. Japan, Korea and Australia have a lot of star players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar can play good football. Omar Abdulrahman of UAE and Bualim Khoukhi of Qatar might be the new stars of Asian football.
Who will win the tournament?
I think it will be Australia or Japan.
What are the expectations back home for Team Melli considering the side hasn’t been champions for almost 40 years?
I believe a group stage exit is unfortunately more likely than the title for us this time. However, considering the draw, a semifinal exit would be quite realistic.
Some critics argue that the side is too old and Carlos Queiroz is focusing too much on short-term results. Do you agree with them?
Looking at the chaotic planning by the Iranian football federation, nothing but short-term plans can be implemented by Queiroz. Considering that we will only have played two real friendly matches since the World Cup when we’ll kick off our Asian Cup campaign versus Bahrain, Queiroz can only rely on the core of the team that represented Iran well in Brazil. That he exchanged 10 of the players in his squad since then is even quite experimental already, although it has to be noted the starting 11 will barely be affected by those changes.
Iran’s style of play is no easy on the eye over the last couple of years, but it seems to get results Do you agree with the approach?
The style of play dramatically changed in summer 2013 when Queiroz successfully implemented a very defensive approach. I generally agree with any approach that gets results, the question is if we can approach Bahrain and the UAE the same way we approached South Korea, Nigeria and Argentina.
What is the side’s main strength and weakness?
The main strength is the extreme tactical discipline and excellent defensive organization. Weakness is lack of creativity upfront which in my opinion stems more from the defensive approach and therefore lack of bodies and options upfront due to the lack of risks taken.
If you could avoid one side during the tournament who would it be and why?
Japan, they have the best squad and if their new coach doesn’t do too much wrong, they should be the strongest team.
The side’s preparations has been marred by incompetence by organizers. If Iran gets knocked out at the first stage, what would the consensus be?
My consensus would be the same as for the last decades, that Iran needs a complete overhaul of the complete footballing system, from grassroots over IPL, political framework (eg. military service) to funding of IFF. However, the consensus of the decision makers in Iranian football would be that a good foreign coach is a waste of money.
Any young Iranian player that can emerge as a star in the tournament?
Alireza Jahanbakhsh. He is skillful, energetic and has learned to overtake responsibility at NEC. Only things that could prevent him are the lack of support upfront or the fact that he, like in world cup, could not be part of the starting lineup.
Which non-Iranian player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
I think this could be Son Heung-Min’s big tournament.
What will Queiroz’s legacy be if he parts company with Team Melli at the end of the Asian Cup?
Probably that all the people saying Iran’s football naturally is an attacking one and you can only be successful with such an approach were wrong. Although that case is probably stronger now than after a post Asian Cup departure of Queiroz, which most likely would take place after an unsuccessful tournament.
Who will win the tournament?
If you haven’t been following Asian football closely, then the 2015 Asian Cup is probably a good starting point. The continent’s major tournament, alongside the African Cup of Nations, provides good value for money when it comes to entertainment. The 2015 edition takes place in Australia as the Socceroos aim to become the first hosts to lift the trophy since Japan did it last in 1992. They will have their work cut out against the winner of 4 of the tournament’s last 6 editions, Japan, as well as 2-time winners Korea, 3-time winners Iran, fallen giants and 3-time champions Saudi Arabia, and the winners of the 2007 edition, Iraq. Emerging powers such as Uzbekistan, UAE and Qatar may also have championship ambitions.
The first round is divided into four groups, with seeded sides with Australia, Team Melli of Iran, Japan and Uzbekistan all seeded. On paper, Groups B and C look evenly balanced, making it difficult to pick the sides that could progress. Group A sees the hosts go up against Korea, Kuwait and Oman. Whilst Group D should see Japan finish first and be joined by Jordan or, more likely, Iraq. Palestine makes its tournament debut and will probably be happy to be there, although it’s had the most stringent of preparations for the competition. Group B should see Uzbekistan progress whilst Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China will probably fight for second spot. Group C is an all-West Asian affair with Iran heading UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Team Melli does not enjoy playing teams from the Middle East and has been upset in recent years against sides such as Lebanon, Bahrain and Jordan and has been perennially held by Qatar too. This group may go into the final day match-ups before the winners or runners-up are known. In terms of progression, Groups A & B as well as C & D are paired in the Quarter Finals.
Korea and Iran remain traditional power-houses in Asian football, but, especially in the case of the Iranians it is largely based upon reputation. Team Melli last won the tournament in 1976 and only came close once in 1996 when the exciting team led by Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi and Karim Bagheri finished 3rd after losing on penalty kicks against eventual winners Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, Iran remains West Asia’s strongest challengers for the title. If you are looking for a dark-horse then Uzbekistan is destined for far more success than it has achieved so far in Asian football. They have an exciting and attacking line-up and have a genuine superstar in Odil Ahmedov, of Russia’s Krasnodar, who provides the heart-beat of the side.
If you were a betting man then its best to put your money on the safe choice of Japan. Australia will be buoyed by the home grown but Ante Posteloglou is currently overseeing the rebuilding of an aging Socceroos side. This tournament may come a little early for the Australians in terms of genuinely challenging the Japanese but over the course of 90 minutes (or 120 for that matter) anything can happen.
What You Should Know
• This is the 16th edition of the Asian Cup
• Only 6 times has the hosts won the tournament
• Ali Daei is the record goal-scorer in the finals tournament with 14 goals during 3 editions
• 15 hat tricks have been scored throughout the tournament with 6 of them scored by Iranians and 3 by Japanese players
• 4 Brazilian managers have led teams to win the tournament in the past
• The 2015 Asian Cup may break China’s attendance record from the 2005 edition (31,877 per game)
• Iran and Korea are appearing for a record 13th time
• Palestine is appearing for the first time
• Iran has won the most matches at the Asian Cup (34) and scored the most goals (112)
• Japan has won the tournament for a record 4 times
• Only Australia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine & the UAE will be managed by local head coaches
Players to Watch (Key Man / Emerging Talent)
Australia – Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) / Tommy Oar (Utrecht)
Korea – Ki Sung Yeung (Swansea) / Son Heung Min (Leverkusen)
Oman – Emad Al Hosni (Saham) / Abdul Aziz Muqbali (Fanja)
Kuwait – Badr Al Mutawa (Qadisiya) / Yousef Nasser (Kazma)
Uzbekistan – Odil Ahmedov (Krasnodar)/ Sardor Rashidov (Bunyodkor)
Saudi Arabia – Naser Al Shamrani (Al Hilal) / Naif Hazazi (Al Shabab)
China – Zheng Zi (Guangzhou) / Zhang Linpeng (Guangzhou)
North Korea – Pak Nam Chol (Sisaket) /Pak Kwang Ryong (Vaduz)
Iran – Ashkan Dejagah (Al Arabi) / Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC Nijmegen)
UAE – Omar Abdul Rahman (Al Ain) / Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
Bahrain – Fawzi Ayesh (Al Seleya) / Mohammed Al Tayeb (Al Najma)
Qatar – Khalfan Ibrahim (Al Sadd) / Boualim Khoukhi (Al Arabi)
Japan – Keisuke Honda (Milan) / Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima)
Iraq – Younes Mahmoud (No Club) / Ali Adnan (Caykur Rizespor)
Jordan – Amer Shafi (Al Wahdat) / Khalil Bani Attiah (Al Faisaly)
Palestine – Ashraf Nu’man (Al Faisaly) / Abed Jaber (Hilal Al Quds)
The Final Four
Australia, Uzbekistan, Japan & Iran
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.