I write this with a hopeful, yet heavy heart. To see Iran play in this year’s World Cup was nothing short of breathtaking. Iranians waited 8 long years to be here again, and just as it was then, I was overjoyed watching Team Melli play. It was a memorable tournament, and despite being close to a heat attack a few times and losing my voice, I was proud to be Iranian. My heart melted every time the camera would zoom in on an Iranian player, and when the national anthem played, I was close to tears. Football has always been much more than just football. Throw Iran in the mix and it gets overly emotional.
There’s a lot to take away from Team Melli’s performance this year. Firstly, a big congratulations goes out for qualifying. Although for some nations, this doesn’t seem like much to celebrate, for Iran it’s only the fourth time they have qualified for the World Cup, the last time being in 2006. Much credit needs to be given to the players, the coach and the staff for their preparations as it’s not easy, under the circumstances, for a country like Iran to qualify. Planning friendly matches was difficult due to international sanctions, and considering the majority of players don’t have much international experience and play for clubs in Iran, their performance should be applauded.
Secondly, Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s manager, did a fantastic job of maximising on Iran’s strengths. Although we were fairly limited in the final third and couldn’t finish a few chances in all three group matches, I think we played great defensively and created offensive opportunities that were dangerous, and at times unlucky that weren’t converted into goals. Queiroz was also successful in calling up players with international experience, recognising that at this level, it makes a huge difference. It didn’t take players like Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plays for Charlton Athletic and Ashkan Dejagah, who is currently with English club Fulham, long to accept Queiroz’s invitation to play for the Iranian National Football Team. This, in and of itself, is something to take note of; these players wanted to play for their countries, and their passion, dedication and contribution is admirable. A shout out also goes to midfielder Andranik Teymourian, who I thought was consistently great in all three matches.
It’s also worth mentioning that after a nervous first match against Nigeria, Iran played an exceptional match against favourites Argentina. Not having played in 8 years at this competition, it’s natural for players to be nervous, and despite this, they displayed a great defensive effort, coming up with a draw. It was against Argentina, however, that 80 million Iranians all over the world felt most proud. I get goosebumps when I think about that match. It’s probably the best I’ve personally seen Team Melli play. We were solid defensively, and limited Messi to only a few touches throughout the match. We had quite a few chances up front, one of which should have been a penalty as Dejagah was pulled down in the box. That would have changed the match drastically. And in the final minutes of the match, Iranian hearts were broken. A moment of brilliance by a world class player that no team or goalkeeper could have prevented.
Lastly, despite not playing with the same momentum and urgency in our last match against Bosnia, I’m glad we didn’t leave the competition goalless. I knew the match was over, but I still celebrated when Gucci scored. I thought his performance was great throughout the tournament. Bigger and more experienced teams fall short having to go into a third and final group game having to win, so I have nothing but love for these guys.
The future looks bright. We have some young talent coming in with the likes of Sardar Azmoun, 19 year old forward who currently plays for Rubin Kazan, and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, 20 year old winger who featured as a substitute in this year’s World Cup. Carlos Queiroz stated before the tournament that he would be resigning, and he stated this again after Iran’s exit yesterday. We need to understand that just like everything else Iran-related, things need to progress slowly. If Queiroz takes back his resignation, or if he doesn’t but we manage to sign an experienced coach, nourish young talent, and gain international experience, I have no doubt in my mind that Iran will consistently qualify for future World Cups and advance past the group stages. It takes time, but as we’ve seen from this year, all of Iran will continue to show their support.
Perhaps what Iranians can take away the most from Team Melli’s appearance is their contribution to how Iran is viewed as a whole. Team Melli helped the world understand some of the complexities of modern Iran, and whereas before our opening match, commentators, analysts and football fans underestimated our quality, we leave Brazil gaining respect, and having changed Iran’s image on the international stage. Iranians showed great unity the past two weeks, and in my mind, that’s precisely what we need to progress in all things, not just football.
!زنده باد ايران