Iran captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh ‘dreamed’ of leading nation against England at World Cup

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Daily Star – ROTTERDAM, Iran face a mammoth task in playing England in their Qatar World Cup opening fixture on November 21, but Alireza Jahanbakhsh fancies Team Melli’s ‘golden generation’ against the Three Lions.

Former Brighton winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh was accompanied by Porto’s Ali Taremi and ex-Nottingham Forest striker Karim Ansarifard when England drew Iran in the World Cup.

The 28-year-old, coming off the back of a return to the Eredivisie with Feyenoord last season, recalled having a particularly fearless attitude as Iran awaited their group stage opponents ahead of a third consecutive World Cup.

He said: “To be honest, we were watching the draw and before they went to pick the third team for the third group, we said it would be super exciting, super nice if we dropped into that Group B.”

Jahanbakhsh and company’s wish came true as Team Melli landed in a fascinating group that included England, the USA and now Wales.

Yet the midfielder, who featured at both the tournament’s Brazil and Russia editions as an up-and-coming superstar, is not ignorant of the monumental challenge they face by coming up against the Euro 2020 finalists.

He admitted: “It’s a very, very tough group. With England, it’s one of the best generations they’ve ever had – they can field three very strong sides at the same time.

“The likes of Harry Kane have so much quality. I love watching the other players in my position too like Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.”

Jahanbakhsh is one of the few Iranian players, alongside 2021 Puskas award contender Taremi, to have faced such formidable opposition both within the Premier League and the European stage. He is no stranger to carrying the high hopes of a nation which has never made it into the knockout stages of the tournament, having captained Iran in 2018’s nail-biting 1-0 defeat to Spain as a 25-year-old.

And despite having worn the armband throughout Iran’s World Cup qualification run, the Qazvin-raised midfielder still has to pinch himself whenever he leads out his teammates.

He explained: “It’s just unbelievable. It’s something that I dreamed of as a kid. Whenever I have the chance to wear the captain’s armband I do it with all my heart because I know how much football means to people.

“We know how passionate people are back home. And if you’re the one who is leading a team representing 85 million people into games, it’s just a very proud feeling.”

Iran were one of the surprise packages at the last World Cup as they picked up four points in a group that included Spain, Portugal and Morocco, coached to near-defensive perfection by former Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz.

They defeated Morocco 1-0 in the opening fixture but fell agonisingly short in their final match against Portugal, which ended in a 1-1 draw after Cristiano Ronaldo had a penalty saved and Taremi missed a sitter. Yet with Quieroz leaving his post in 2019, the situation within the national team appears far more precarious this time around.

Croatian head coach Dragan Skocic guided Team Melli to an almost flawless qualification to Qatar, but a shock 2-1 friendly defeat to Algeria in June and a lacklustre training camp in the searing heat of Doha led to reports of a split dressing room.

Skocic’s future is now up in the air as the Iranian Football Federation reportedly scramble for a replacement with just one training camp remaining before the World Cup finals. But Jahanbakhsh’s focus remains on the pitch as he insists the players are eager to prove themselves once again.

“We showed in the last two World Cups we are not the easy opponents”, Jahanbakhsh explained. “We saw the reaction – everyone was talking about Iran as a national team. That’s because we worked hard and we put that responsibility on our shoulders, it was unbelievable.

“We didn’t make it to the next round but the way people reacted… we are going to do our best to make our nation proud. That’s all we can do, make the best out of it and work hard because it’s a very difficult group.”

The draw also presents an opportunity for Iran’s stars to replicate one of the nation’s most historic sporting moments – defeating the United States at a World Cup. The 1998 ‘golden generation’ did exactly that in France, holding off a late comeback to secure a dramatic 2-1 victory, where Mehdi Mahdavikia emphatically scored the decider.

Being the first competition he grew up watching, Jahanbakhsh still holds the memories of 1998 dear and even counts Mahdavikia as his biggest idol. He wholeheartedly believes Iran have a new golden generation on their hands based on talent alone, but insists preparation is key to progressing out of the group stage for the very first time.

Jahanbakhsh said: “This is one of, if not the, best generations Iran has ever had with a good combination of youngsters and experienced players. The fact we’ve got a very good attack is a huge plus for us.

“We have a very bright future with the national team. It is strong enough and has a lot of potential to do a lot of great things, we just need the best preparation possible.”

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