April 13, 2024
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GOAL – Football is full of little ironies. Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi took Iran to within nineGhotbi minutes of a (probable) World Cup place last June but then Park Ji-sung danced through the Persian defense to fire home an equalizer in Seoul to dash those dreams. 

It was, Ghotbi admitted ruefully later, the kind of thing that he and Pim Verbeek had repeatedly demanded that the Manchester United man do more of during their time in South Korea. 

Nine minutes may as well be nine million miles when it comes to the World Cup and South Africa felt a long way away last Monday as Iran were losing 3-2 to Qatar in their first game of a four-nation friendly tournament.

Following a 2011 Asian Cup qualification defeat in Jordan in November, it was another disappointing result for Iran. The Jordan loss now means that defeat in Singapore on Wednesday will not only jeopardise Iran’s chances of qualifying for the Asian Cup, it will also raise the temperature in the pressure-cooker that is Iranian football for the first time since the summer.

Ali Karimi Tries To Deal With Elimination

On the same day as the Qatar setback, which was followed by a loss to Mali and a win against North Korea, Ghotbi’s predecessor with the national team, Ali Daei, was sinking his backside into the hotseat at Ghotbi’s former club Persepolis. It was a return to management after a rest of eight months. 

Daei had been fired soon after a home defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia in March left no more room for error in the qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup. He is now back at the nation’s biggest club. Daei has already led Saipa to the Iranian title and a second title with a different team, coupled with his prestigious playing career, would make him the prime candidate to replace Ghotbi the man who replaced him in April – no matter how often Daei says he is not interested. 

Stranger things have happened and in Iran, they do so on a regular basis. When Daei was fired in April, Ghotbi was the obvious candidate. Charismatic, cosmopolitan and cool, a contrast to the usual staid figures standing on IPL sidelines, Ghotbi was greeted by hundreds, perhaps thousands of fans when he returned to Tehran airport. 

Ghotbi Was A Popular Choice

The enthusiasm was felt by many fans throughout the nation though it didn’t reach large sections of the media and a suspicious football establishment. The press pack had not been unhappy to see Ghotbi leave Persepolis in September 2008, just four months he delivered the title in the final minute of the final game of his first season. 

That was a genuine fairy-tale story for the 45 year-old, the millions of fans who supported Persepolis and those who regarded Ghotbi’s arrival as a breath of fresh air in the smoky, heady mix of Iranian football politics. 

An Iranian- American in charge of Persepolis, the nation’s biggest club was one thing – and even that title-winning campaign was a season full of strife and stress off the pitch – but taking charge of Team Melli was another. 

The Iranian Football Federation was reluctant to give Ghotbi his chance but in the end, had little choice. At the time though, with the team sitting next to last in their qualification group with three games left to play; it was all hands to the pump and the media largely got behind the new man. 

The press calculated that seven points were needed and that tally was promised. He got five. Ghotbi couldn’t be, and largely wasn’t, blamed for that. Iran were poor throughout qualification, good halves in Saudi Arabia and at home to North Korea excepted, and the punishing schedule in June when the team had three games in ten days – a home match in Tehran sandwiched by two trips to Korea – made a tough task that much harder, so much so that even North Korea expressed sympathy.

Coaching Iran Can Be A Lonely Job

Elimination may have been expected but was no less painful for that. Iran prides itself on its national team. Following the World Cup failure, that pride has taken a huge knock and will take time to recover. Elimination also meant that the honeymoon with the press, such as it was, was over. For a while, it remained quiet, football was a painful topic of conversation and avoided when possible. 

Qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup proceeded according to plan but Ghotbi still suffered a blow. His attendance of the inauguration of President Ahmadjinejad in Tehran in August may have been mandatory but cost him the goodwill of many fans and stripped much of the armour he had against media barbs. 

These included charges that he has reversed Daei’s policy of bringing youth through the ranks, criticism that he criticizes the media and the local league too much. Ghotbi does so partly as he wants to bring real change in the way the national team and Iranian football is organized and these are admirable long-term plans but in the end, it is all about results.

The Asian Cup defeat in Jordan, with Iran missing some of their star players, hasn’t yet put qualification in jeopardy – Iran are still top of their group and a win in Singapore will ensure a place at the Asian Cup with a game to spare -but it did anger the press and dismay the fans.

Ghotbi Trying To Turn Iran Around

Then came the Qatar tournament. Going into this four-nation meet, Ghotbi was quoted as saying that winning the tournament was not a priority, preferring to prepare for the future, trying new players and formations, was more important than winning a few friendly games. 

The comments were not received well. Criticized for setting sights too high last summer, Ghotbi was then blasted for setting them too low. 

Friendly results may not be important in themselves but three straight losses in a row put the pressure on as Ghotbi knows well. Ghotbi returned to Korea in 2005 with Dick Advocaat, replacing Jo Bonfrere, a coach secured qualification for the 2006 World Cup in June 2005 with a game to spare, but was on his way out two months later after a string of disappointing results. 

Iran’s win over North Korea in the final game of the Qatar tournament on January 2 was welcome but only served as a reminder that the Koreans are off to South Africa while Iran have to focus on Singapore. 

A win there on Wednesday would seal a place in a tournament that actually matters. Defeat would start a tide of trouble that Ghotbi would struggle to stay afloat in –even if he wanted to and that is far from certain. 

It is a big week for Ghotbi and perhaps an even bigger one for Iranian football.