Iran could hold World Cup surprise in expatriate contingent
No nation competing at this summer’s World Cup finals is rated less likely to win the tournament than Iran. If punters are mad enough to believe otherwise, then take 1500/1 on them lifting the trophy.
For Team Melli coach Carlos Queiroz, it’s a question of relative success. If failing to get his own country Portugal over the first knockout hurdle four years ago in South Africa was under-achieving, then reaching that stage with Iran in Brazil would be considered the complete opposite.
On each of their three previous appearances at the World Cup finals, the Persians have failed to get out of the group stage, recording just one win. Although they have climbed just six places in the FIFA World Rankings to 37 since he took charge in April 2011, Queiroz has quickly introduced a significant foreign-based contingent into the squad.
Iran are set to include their highest ever number of players plying their trade outside of Arabia on a major tournament roster. Chief among this diaspora are right-sided combination Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps) and Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah.
Reunited with Felix Magath at Craven Cottage, after the pair played for and managed Wolfsburg to the Bundesliga title, the German gaffer is once again getting the best out of the winger. Dejagah’s end of season form (three goals and an assist in seven appearances under Magath at the time of writing) could yet help save the west London club from relegation.
Other expatriates set to get the call from Queiroz are goalkeeping pair Daniel Davari and Alireza Haghighi, attacking midfielder Masoud Shojaei, young NEC Nijmegen winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Charlton Athletic forward Reza Ghoochannejhad and uncapped Rubin Kazan frontman Sardar Azmoun. The latter has been affixed with the somewhat dubious label of the “Iranian Messi”.
Fulham fans, but more likely Bolton Wanderers and Barnsley supporters, may also remember holding midfielder Andranik Teymourian. His partnership with former Osasuna stalwart and national skipper Javad Nekounam in the Persians’ engine room remains a key component of their spine.
Both are north of 30 and playing back in Arabia now, but have been to a World Cup – 2006 in Germany – with Team Melli before, and have over 200 caps between them. Queiroz will seldom be able to call on such substantial experience elsewhere in his squad.
Centre half Seyed Jalal Hosseini rarely misses a competitive game for Iran, but has never graced the global stage. Left back Ehsan Hajsafi, meanwhile, is another regular in defence, and has over 50 caps at just 24 years of age.
Khosro Heydari can cover either full back berth or play further up the field. Versatile forwards Mohammad Reza Khalatbari and Gholamreza Rezaei give Queiroz options on the flanks, in behind or up front.
The fact that Iran captain Nekounam was their top-scorer in qualifying says a lot about the players operating ahead of him, as they prepare to grace a World Cup group, which they are widely expected to finish last in.
Queiroz must tackle tournament second-favourites Argentina, first-time qualifiers (as an independent nation) Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Africa Cup of Nations holders Nigeria. All are looking like tough games.
Iran are rank outsiders to win Group F at 28/1, and to reach the knockout phase from this formidable pool at 11/2. They are thus odds-on at 1/10 to bow out after three matches.
As challenging as it looks, then, Queiroz will be counting on individuals like Dejagah to bring their club form in decent divisions across to representing their country. Team Melli can kick things off by stunning Nigeria with victory on June 16th at 11/4.