Iran have qualified for back-to-back World Cups for the first time in their history. A comfortable 2-0 win over Uzbekistan in Tehran on Monday clinched a place in Russia 2018 with two games to spare.
It has been a campaign that has confirmed Iran as Asia’s number one team and the only one team that –- at the moment — can look forward to next summer with confidence.
At the 2014 World Cup, none of Asia’s quartet even won a game but Iran was the best performer, taking finalist Argentina all the way before being sunk by a last-minute Lionel Messi special.
It was the fourth time on the global stage for Iran but never has the team got past the initial stage. 2018 could and should be different.
Coach Carlos Queiroz has built a lean, winning machine. Going into the game at an excited Azadi Stadium, everyone knew that a victory would be enough but importantly, all knew that a win was coming. That is what Iran do. When the team need a result, they just deliver.
Sardar Azmoun gets the headlines and the Russian-based (but surely destined to leave the country for a bigger league before the World Cup arrives) striker delivered once again. Alireza Jahanbakhsh saw plenty of space behind the Uzbek defence to release the 22 year-old who sent close to 100,000 fans crazy with a composed finish. Medhi Taremi, a hard-working and under-rated forward sealed the deal with two minutes remaining.
He didn’t need to. One goal is always enough for a team that has not conceded a single goal in eight games in the final round of qualification. Defensive standards in Asia of late have been poor. Iran have not forgotten or neglected the art of defending as so many have.
There is the best Iranian team since 2006 but it can go much further. Unlike that fractious bunch of talented individuals including Ali Daei and Ali Karemi, there is a real togetherness about this team. The spirit is there and everyone, including the substitutes, know exactly what they have to do.
They finally have a top class striker, creative attacking players, a fine defensive marshall in Seyed Jalal Hosseini and impressive youngsters such as midfielder Saied Ezatolahi. The 20 year-old is, like Azmoun, in Russia but has been linked with a move to the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.
That would just add to a growing list of Iranian players going to European leagues and doing very well such as Reza Ghoochannejhad who was the second highest goalscorer in the Dutch top tier last season with Heerenveen.
Saeid Ezatolahi and Seyed Jalal Hosseini celebrate qualifying for Russia.
And then there is Queiroz. His relationship with the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) has been far from smooth over the years but he delivers. The former Real Madrid coach is the best in Asia and it is no accident that Iran have been at number one in terms of FIFA rankings for four years. That has been reflected on the pitch for quite some time.
A fourth World Cup qualification — with three different teams — is a fine achievement. Taking Iran to the knockout stage would be another one.
There are issues. The main bone of contention between boss and federation in the past has been preparations. Queiroz has pointed out on numerous occasions that Iran is way behind Japan and South Korea in terms of facilities, training camps and the amount and quality of friendly games.
He touched on this theme after the game.
“From tomorrow we have to put in place the best preparation possible for the World Cup,”he said after being thrown up into the Tehran air by the players. “”Hopefully, after two consecutive World Cup qualifications, Iran will not miss a historic opportunity to secure the future of their football. The passion is here, the talent too, we hope that those who have responsibilities can give crucial help.”
Carlos Queiroz: The right coach.
The right team seems to be in place and the right coach certainly is. The thought of this Iranian side having 12 solid months of preparation is an exciting one. If everything goes right off the pitch then what happens in Russia should be very interesting indeed.
The one disappointment — if it is that — in this campaign is that Iran were not tested enough. South Korea, Qatar, China and Uzbekistan have all been disappointing.
That is not Iran’s fault but there is a need for more games against stronger opposition from around the world. The team has come far, it could go much further.
But for now, Iranian fans can celebrate (and they have been doing in Tehran and other cities) in the knowledge that they are the second team — after Brazil — to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. To do so with two games to spare is an impressive achievement.
There is more to come from the best team in Asia and Iran are surely the continent’s best hope in Russia.