AFC Asian Cup 2019: Lack of funds, media boycott and injuries – The story of Iran’s troubled preparations

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Fox Sports Asia – HONG KONG, It is quite hard to swallow the fact that Iran have never won the AFC Asian Cup in almost 43 years despite being at the forefront of Asian football all along. While Team Melli looks to right that mismatch in 2019, their preparations have been far from ideal! 

THE STORY SO FAR

It is safe to say that Iran are one of the most successful teams in Asia having won the Asian Cup on three occasions — that too in successive editions as they dominated Asian football between 1968 and 1976. The team featuring legendary stars like Nasser Hejazi and Ali Parvin also made it to the quarterfinals of the 1976 Olympics in Canada.

When it comes to world football’s ultimate stage, the FIFA World Cup, Team Melli have made it among the footballing elites five times — the latest in 2018 where they won not just their second-ever World Cup match, but also plenty of hearts for their valiant effort under Portuguese tactician Carlos Queiroz.

A late, late own goal saw them defeat Morocco in their opening fixture at Russia before giving the mighty Spaniards a scare in a 1-0 defeat. Iran also managed a draw against European champions Portugal led by Cristiano Ronaldo, but were still unfortunate to drop out in the group stages.

So, it was only natural for Iranians to have high hopes of their national team as they fight among the best in Asia with a chance to end over four decades worth of trophy drought. But things haven’t been straightforward for Queiroz and team.

MONEY MATTERS 

One of the problems that have plagued Iranian football over the years has been a lack of money to finance the national team. This mainly roots from various sanctions imposed on the nation since the late 1970s. And the lack of funds has affected Iran as they prepare for 2019’s showpiece event as well.

As recently as November, the Iran players and members of the coaching staff had carried out a protest by deactivating their social media accounts unhappy with the lack of facilities and support provided by the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) and the government as they prepped for the Asian Cup.

It was reported that many players and coach Queiroz himself were yet to be paid wages from the World Cup last summer which led to the coordinated Instagram deactivation from the Team Melli personnel. Iran have also failed to arrange friendly matches with strong sides in the build up to the tournament upsetting the coach.

Iran have played Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela in fixtures during November. On December 25, they were held to a 1-1 draw by Palestine in Doha. They will also play their close allies Qatar in another friendly before opening their campaign in Group D of the Asian Cup alongside Iraq, Vietnam and Yemen.

RUFFLING FEATHERS AT HOME 

It is safe to say that Iran coach Queiroz has not had the best of relationships with shareholders of domestic football back in Iran. The former Real Madrid manager has been vocal in his criticism of Iran’s domestic league and clubs and hasn’t spared even Iran’s two bigwigs — Persepolis FC and Esteghlal FC.

One man — AFC Champion League runners-up Persepolis’ manger Branko Ivankovic — in particular has seemed to be holding a grudge for a long time now even forcing Iran national body’s general secretary Mohammad Saket to issue a warning in letter to the Persepolis manager to “not undermine and bring discord” to the Iran’s national team.

The tension between the two managers have created unnecessary friction in Team Melli over the months and is one that could have been avoided. However, there is also criticism for the country’s football authorities from fans who think that they haven’t done enough to alleviate the differences between the two managers.

But with the 64-year-old Croatian who guided the team in the 2006 World Cup considered one of the candidates for the next Iran head coach, it looks like the FFIRI are on a sticky wicket! Queiroz’s assistant Oceano da Cruz attacking an Iranian journalist after the friendly against Trinidad and Tobago hasn’t helped Queiroz’s cause either with local media more or less boycotting the coach since.

INJURIES NOT KIND TO TEAM MELLI

Last thing Queiroz would have wanted was to lose his players to injury. But that is exactly what has happened over the course of the last few days. Iran have lost a lot of players over fitness and some very important ones at that.

Saeid Ezzatollahi was one of the first stars to be ruled out of the tournament as it was reported that it will take another three weeks for the 22-year-old’s quadriceps injury to heal. Ezzatollahi who joined English Championship side Reading FC on a season-long loan from Russian club FC Rostov had picked up the injury during international duty in October.

And his absence has robbed Queiroz off his regular starter in the holding midfield role. Another star to be struck down by injury is Ali Karimi, another midfield destructor, who dropped out of contention a day later after news broke of Ezzatollahi’s injury.

Queiroz, once the right hand man of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, will be hoping that his team can produce some of the fighting spirit synonymous with the Red Devils during Team Melli’s Asian Cup 2019 campaign. If he can play his chips right, Queiroz could bring home their first silverware in 43 years and once and for all end the debate on who the real boss in Tehran is!



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