Fox Sports Asia – HONG KONG, The excitement had been building in Iran ahead of Friday’s World Cup draw.
Iran have been to four World Cups in the past but have never progressed past the group stage. The 2018 tournament was going to be the first. All the pieces were in place – a settled squad, a fantastic qualification campaign, a team full of international experience and one of the finest tacticians around.
Being ranked as Asia’s number one team – a position reflected on the pitch over the past couple of years – was another positive. Iran were the only nation from their confederation to be placed in Pot Three instead of Pot Four.
But that counted for nothing in the end and the excitement was quickly punctured. Spain and Portugal had, excitingly for the neutral at least, been placed in the top two places in Group B. No sooner had Pot Three come around then Iran were joining the Iberian neighbours. The addition of Morocco was a slight relief but then Pot Four was not going to throw up the toughest opposition.
Yet all is not lost. At the very least, this offers glamour and a chance to face some of the best two teams around.
Coach Carlos Queiroz was quick to express his excitement.
“The draw is very attractive, very exciting and could not be better,” he said.
“To play against Portugal and Spain and to to show why they are here and they deserve to be here. I am sure we are going to do well. We are going to be competitive as always and no matter what happens, our fans will be proud and happy.”
Perhaps the most exciting prospect of all is taking on Cristiano Ronaldo – four years after doing battle with the Portuguese star’s big rival.
In Brazil, Iran gave eventual finalist Argentina quite a game. The Asians kept the South Americans quiet and had a very good shout for a second-half penalty go unanswered. With the game almost over and a hard-fought point within reach, Lionel Messi, who had been well-marshalled, popped up with a moment of magic to win the game.
This summer it is time to stop Ronaldo. The Portuguese attacker has been a titan of the world game in the 21st century. I saw him score against Iran in Frankfurt as Portugal won 2-0 at the 2006 World Cup group game. He was on the cusp of greatness then.
Not any more. Inevitably, time tackles all, even the Madeira man who will be 33 by the time he takes the field against Team Melli. The Real Madrid star is past his peak – though is still one of the very best in the world – and his form so far this season had been his poorest for years. With Portugal heavily reliant on their talisman, there is hope for Iran and the others in the group.
If anyone can stop the star then it is Queiroz. He knows the player well from his time as assistant to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. The two famously, or perhaps infamously, reunited at the 2010 World Cup. There were some words exchanged after Portugal exited the tournament in the second round, ironically at the hands of Spain.
When asked after the game why Portugal had lost, Ronaldo simply said ‘Ask Queiroz’ in a seeming critique at Portugal’s lack of attacking ambitions against the eventual champions. The two don’t seem to have spoken since.
Queiroz is not one to let slights go forgotten and the 64 year-old is so meticulous that he will have a plan to combat the threat of Ronaldo anyway. It just may be that he will take even greater pleasure than usual if the plan works.
The showdown with Portugal is the final game of the group and it is always difficult to look that far ahead with all the possible permutations. If Iran can take three points from the opening game against Morocco then the situation is looking good, though, of course, the North Africans will be thinking something similar.
The basic requirement for Iran is to have their second round destiny in their own hands. Even better would to have Portugal need something from the game and attack. Then Team Melli really will have a chance.
Group B is tough but then it is also exciting. This is the test that Iranian football has been waiting for and Cristiano Ronaldo is the world star that will be pitting his wits against Asia’s best defence and Asia’s beat coach. If Iran can handle the star then the knockout stage will beckon.