GJ 2018 World Cup Guide: The view from Iran

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GJ 2018 World Cup Guide – DUBLIN, My name is Gerry Johnston and this is my personal guide to the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia. This Iran team comes into this tournament with a great record in qualifying but the big question will be can they bring that form to Russia? They don’t have a long, illustrious history to defend so it would be a fantastic achievement for them as a nation if they could become the first ever Iranian team to progress beyond the first round.

I spoke to Hesam from PersianFootball.com about Iran’s World Cup hopes.

The final 23 man squad has now been confirmed, are you happy with the decision or would you have done something different?

In typical Carlos Queiroz fashion, many Team Melli (the nickname for Iran’s national team) fans were shocked by some of his selections. Before the initial 24-man list was announced, many of us would have bet the farm that one of Team Melli’s best defenders ever and an omnipresent figure since 2007, Jalal Hosseini, to be a shoo-in selection. But the 116-cap man only managed to only make the standby list and failed to make the Final 23, which caught many off-guard. Carlos Queiroz decided to go for a younger and promising defender, Majid Hosseini, who had captained Iran’s U17 team in 2013. Majid had an excellent tournament alongside Saeid Ezatolahi. In recent weeks, it seems, however, that the starting central defender role will go to Roozbeh Cheshmi. (more on Cheshmi below).

Now why did he opt to switch Jalal for Majid or Roozbeh, considering the latter has only one cap for Iran? We can only speculate. Some point to Jalal’s age, he is 36, and what better time to turn the page then to hand over the chance to a potentially generational central defender, who is 21-years old, at the world’s biggest sporting event? Although this is a risky strategy. Others also bring up Jalal’s extensive injury situation in the past year. Despite being one of the first names on the starting 11 sheet in yesteryear, he has not featured much in Iran’s games in the last year due to nagging injuries. He was also not present when Iran faced Panama, Tunisia and Algeria, which served as important friendlies for Team Melli. Maybe we should have seen the signs – but it was still a shock to many of us who expected Jalal Hosseini to marshal the backline.

Carlos Queiroz also left out Vouria Ghafouri. Vouria had an excellent season at Esteghlal and really helped them this year in the Persian Gulf League and the Asian Champions League. His omission was a surprise to many, as Vouria Ghafouri and Ramin Rezaeian appeared to be interchangeable players at the right back positions, with both expected to start depending on the opponent. Carlos decided to drop Vouria for a personal favourite player of his, Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh. While Carlos trusts Khanzadeh, most fans do not, to put it frankly. The consensus is that Khanzadeh has been very unimpressive during his time with Iran’s national team. Most team fans prefer Ghafouri to Khanzadeh, both in an offensive and defensive capacity, but Carlos clearly does not. The official reason for Vouria’s exclusion was that he was playing too much of an offensive right-winger role at his club, Esteghlal, and this put him out of favour with the Portuguese manager. This rationale confused some Team Melli fans who pointed out that other players have different roles with their clubs and national teams. Carlos clearly saw a deficiency in Vouria’s game and decided not to take him to Russia.

The last omission was Kaveh Rezaei. Kaveh Rezaei had a great season in Belgium and finished with 16 goals and 6 assists. He finished as the fourth best goal scorer in the Belgian Pro League, which is outstanding considering it’s his first year in a European league. But due to no fault of his own, he just decided to have a monster season abroad at a time where Iran has an excess of great strikers. There is a logjam at the strikers position, with Sardar Azmoun, Karim Ansarifard and Reza Ghoochannejhad all filling that role.

Some, including myself, would have liked Kaveh to be invited over Reza, as his current form is much better. However, Carlos trusts Reza a whole lot more and he has been dubbed the “Clutch Dutch,” as he is from the Netherlands and has scored some last-minute and clutch goals for Iran. Carlos can count on Reza as a late sub to score a vital goal, as he has done many times. Kaveh does not have that same trust factor or late-game pedigree, at this point, as Kaveh has only been integrated into the national team in the last year. I personally would have liked to see Kaveh Rezaei replace Vahid Amiri and be converted into a wing player in Queiroz’s system, like striker Mehdi Taremi who plays as a left winger for Team Melli.

Most fans trust Carlos Queiroz, who has a high approval rating amongst the Team Melli faithful, and we hope that the logic behind his selections play out well for Team Melli at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. We will only be happy with positive results from the tournament.

What kind of influence has Carlos Quiroz had on Iranian football since he took over the national team?

Carlos Queiroz has not only brought unprecedented success for Team Melli on the field, helping them qualify for back to back World Cups, a first in our history, and cement their place as the undisputed best team in Asia but he has done other things off the field. He has tried to pushed for accountability at the management and administrative levels of Iran’s Football Federation and has spearheaded initiatives like the Performance Elite Center (PEC), which was developed to give Iranian national team players first-class training facilities. What he has done for our football will have a lasting affect, long after he is gone – from infrastructural initiatives to instilling a positive attitude in our players to try to progress in Europe. There has been an exodus of players to European leagues under him, and we have around an upwards of 15 players who are playing in Europe, with this already increasing for the 2018/2019 season. Much of the credit has to go to Carlos who has demanded that his players forego an easier life in Iran and in the Persian Gulf League and take their football to new heights in foreign, European leagues.

He has also really changed the expectations of the fans. We have not lost to any Asian team since 2015 and have dominated Asian football for the last 3 years. We have been number one Asian team in the FIFA rankings for over three years (we just lost this rank to Australia this week) and we expect to beat all and every Asian competitor we face – every time. This is a real divergence from before as we had trouble with certain Asian teams under previous regimes.

But this is the World Cup and the best of the best are here to compete and play. This however, doesn’t change our expectations. Because of what Carlos Queiroz has done with our team, many fans are hopeful we can somehow manage to get to the second round – even in the Group of Death. If Carlos Queiroz is not there, we would have no such illusions. A lot of this faith has to do with Carlos’ pedigree as a manager.

What are your thoughts on your group opponents? Any players you are concerned about?

Iran is in the group of death, every team can cause problems at this stage. Whenever you have a team comprised of arguably the three best teams of their respective continents, in Spain, Iran and Morocco, and the European champions, Portugal – you will have a ton of talent that you need to be weary of. Spain is talent-heavy at every position, but the likes of Isco and Asensio can break down any defence in the world. Portugal have arguably the best player in the world in Ronaldo who can single-handedly will his team forward, and Morocco have great wingers/attacking midfielders in Hakim Ziyech and Nordin Amrabat. Morocco are unheralded but they are a very tough team and have not lost since June 2017. Morocco have only conceded three goals since then. Iran does not lack offensive prowess either, with Eredivisie top scorer, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun, who has the highest goals-to-game ratio in Iranian history. Sardar is only 23.

How would you like to see the team line up for the opening game?

It’s very difficult to predict Carlos Queiroz’s lineup, but there are certainties. He will definitely start Sardar Azmoun, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ehsan Hajsafi, Morteza Pouraliganji, Milad Mohammadi and Ramin Rezaeian. There is a very good chance he starts Mehdi Taremi on the left wing, Masoud Shojeai or Ashkan Dejagah will be on the field to captain the squad and Alireza Beiranvand will most likely be in net. After that, we can speculate.

Two huge problems remain in Iran’s starting 11, the central defender and holding/central midfielder. Right now, because Saeid Ezatolahi has been suspended for the first match against Morocco, there is a hole there. Chances are, Omid Ebrahimi will likely start besides Ehsan Hajsafi in the middle, considering that is his natural position and we do not have anyone else there. He may opt to start Roozbeh Cheshmi there besides Ehsan, giving him a more physical presence on the field. Roozbeh is also a candidate to start as a central defender.

Roozbeh Cheshmi has made some silly mistakes in Iran’s friendlies and I can confidently say, that most Team Melli fans want him no where near the starting lineup. Most prefer Majid Hosseini or Pejman Montazeri as one of our central defenders and Omid Ebrahimi as our defensive midfielder. But we will see.

How are expectations among the fans and media at home? What would be an acceptable tournament?

We know we got the most difficult group. What will make us ecstatic? If we win our first match vs. Morocco and can somehow draw Portugal or fight for that second place. This would be a dream come true for us. We got unlucky getting such a tough draw, considering we were the only Asian team in Pot 3. But most of us just want Iran to show that they are a good side and a side that can hold their own against some of the world’s best. Most people expect Iran to come up short, but we are hopeful! Team Melli does play up to their competition, so we expect good games and a real fighting spirit from Iran.

If there’s one player from your country that needs to be at his best for expectations to be met or exceeded, who is it?

It has to be either Sardar Azmoun or Alireza Jahanbakhsh, both of whom are the strongest part of our offensive line. Sardar has done extremely well for Team Melli and has had a poorer form at the club level in the past year. Alireza Jahanbakhsh has done the opposite – he has been perhaps Eredivisie’s best player this year but has not excelled as much on the national stage. Alireza is trending in a much better direction, however, as he has played very well in the past few national team matches and was our best player vs. Turkey, was our best player vs. Venezuela and made a real difference vs. Tunisia when he came on. If Iran is planning to make noise, these two will have to be at their very best.

Is there anyone from your country who isn’t an already established name that you think might announce themselves in this tournament?

I think this will be the tournament that our left back, Milad Mohammadi will make noise. He is Iran’s best kept secret. Similarly, in the 2014 tournament, it was another left back, Mehrdad Pooladi, that made a huge impression with his play. Milad is feisty, incredibly fast and reads the game very well. He will go up against Ronaldo, Ziyech and David Silva/Isco, so he has to be at his best. His never-say-die attitude means if he is able to neutralise the aforementioned players, then the world will take notice.

How far do you expect to get in the Finals?

Realistically, few people have us making it out of the Group of Death, but we should remain hopeful to advance to the next round. Why? Because despite multiple cancellations and other side issues, such as Nike refusing to equip our players with shoes and apparels, this is the best preparation that Iran has ever had – at least in the past 3 World Cups. The atmosphere within camp, according to reports, has been great and zero reported issues have come within Team Melli ranks. Carlos has done a magnificent job unifying the boys around a common cause (going to the 2nd round) and is a great motivator. So we remain hopeful but realise it will be very difficult.

If it’s not your country that wins the tournament who would you like to see win?

We are 100% devoted to Team Melli and really have not thought about other teams – but perhaps the right answer would be that if fail to make it to the second round, one of the teams that is in our group will win the World Cup, so it can add credence to the fact that we competed in the best group.

Give us a prediction for the winners and top scorer in the tournament?

Most people have either Spain, Germany or Brazil as favourites. I think a dark horse can be Belgium. As for the top goal scorer, we fancy Messi or Neymar’s chances to win the golden boot.


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