Iran are back on the world stage after an eight-year absence, and they have their longest-serving active player and maverick captain, Javad Nekounam, to thank for that.
Nekounam, who spent six years in Spain at Osasuna before returning to his home continent in 2012, has been the driving force of the nation. A gifted midfield orchestrator, the 33-year-old veteran instils confidence in his team, and also drives them forward, scoring three goals during qualifying.
The Princes of Persia, has Iran is known to fans, will be participating at their fourth World Cup, and have never made it past the group stage. However, they have never suffered a disgraceful score line.
However, after missing the South Africa 2010™ edition and several underwhelming performances on the Asian continent, their volatile fans craved a new approach, and the Football Federation of Iran (FFIRI) responded with the appointment of well-known Portuguese coach, Carlos Quiroz.
The two-time former assistant manager to now-retired Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and a former manager at Real Madrid has achieved respectable results since coming on board, including defeating mighty South Korea home and away during qualification campaign.
Although Iran qualified for the World Cup, the team is beset by a myriad of problems. The coach is not well-received by the fans due to his overtly pragmatic approach. His tactics do not promote attacking displays, and the team’s victories are littered with 1-0 results. A man with a volatile character, the 60-year-old former Portugal trainer has clashed with officials and players in the past, and was recently handed a touchline ban.
However, his tactical approach has promoted a solid defence and a midfield which retains and recycles the ball very well: two qualities that saw them concede just twice and aided the team’s qualification.
Coming into their fourth World Cup appearance, Iran’s inability to make it out of the group stage could continue, as they enter as one of FIFA’s lowest-ranked teams. However, with the presence of a coach with World Cup experience (Quiroz took Portugal to 2010 World Cup), they could make some stride in Brazil.
Apart from the experience of players such as Nekounam and Andranik Teymourian, Iran do not have a standout or world-class player to wreak havoc on the world stage, but youngsters such as Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad could use this opportunity to shine and lift their country in the process.
The country’s main asset at the World Cup would be the coach Carlos Quiroz. He is tactically astute and studies opponents very well for their weaknesses, which he sets up his team to exploit. His pragmatic approach would suit a tournament setting.
Apart from altitude problems, which would hinder the players, ill-discipline and the lack of a recognised game-changer could further diminish their slim hopes of a successful World Cup.
It will be unsurprising if Iran will be one of the whipping teams of the tournament.