The Plan | Defensive solidity and scoring goals on counterattacks have been the main characteristics of Team Melli for some time and helped Carlos Queiroz shape his unprecedented popularity during his first stint in charge between 2011 and 2019. In 2014 and 2018 they came up against some of the world’s football powerhouses and were expected to concede a lot, but lost only 1-0 to Argentina in Brazil and fell by the same scoreline against Spain and even drew 1-1 against Portugal in Russia. The team performance in the game against Lionel Messi’s Argentina impressed the nation so much there were celebrations in the streets around the country after the narrow defeat.
However, the plan had a big downside in that they then struggled to score goals against so-called weaker opposition. They were not able to dominate games and when they tried the defence would suddenly become vulnerable. One example of that was in Queiroz’s last game of his previous spell, in the semi-final of the 2019 Asian Cup. Iran conceded a sloppy goal against Japan and, when they then pressed for an equaliser, they let in a further two goals.
Queiroz, of course, has not changed his tactics completely. The onus is still on a solid defence but the two games against Uruguay (1-0 win) and Senegal (1-1) in September showed they are trying to play out more from the back and press the opponent higher up the pitch. Iran are likely to play in a 4-1-4-1 formation at the World Cup and the main question concerns who plays up front. Sardar Azmoun would be the favourite but he has been injured. If he is not fit to play, Mehdi Taremi is likely to step in. If Azmoun can play, Taremi is likely to still start, but as a left winger.
The Coach | Carlos Queiroz. Sir Alex Ferguson’s former right-hand man is so popular among Iranian football fans that they did not have any issue with him replacing Dragan Skocic, who won 15 out of his 18 games in charge and got the country to the World Cup in record time. Not even the farcical circumstances in which Queiroz returned dampened the mood. This is the third time Queiroz will lead Iran at a World Cup but this time it was actually Iran who got him there rather than the other way around. In fact he had failed to reach Qatar with Colombia and Egypt. If things go well in Qatar this year he may well stay on and return to the country again next summer for the Asian Cup.
Star Player | “I regret that this boy did not go to European football much earlier. It’s all my fault,” Mehdi Taremi’s father cried on a TV show a few months ago and his thoughts echoed those of pretty much everyone in Iran. After years of scoring in Iran and Qatar he finally made the move to Portugal in 2019, joining Rio Ave before a transfer to Porto a year later. There he has 58 goals in 110 games at the time of writing and pretty much averages a goal every other game for Iran too. Has come a long way since a last-minute miss for his country against Portugal at the 2018 World Cup. He appears to be only getting better and takes comfort from the fact that all recent Ballon d’Or winners have been 30 years or older.
Unsung Hero | When Saeed Ezatolahi moved to Atlético Madrid’s B side as a 17-year-old back in 2014 everyone expected him to have a brilliant club career ahead of him. It may not have turned out quite like that – he is now with Vejle in Denmark having spent quite a considerable amount of time in Russia – but it is a different story with Team Melli. For his national side he is a certain starter for any game, his work rate is appreciated by everyone. His absence was keenly felt in Iran’s first game in Russia and Carlos Queiroz will hope he won’t have the same headache this time.
Probable Line-up | (4-1-4-1) Alireza Beyranvand – Sadegh Moharrami, Hossein Kanaanizadegan, Shoja Khalilzadeh, Ehsan Hajsafi – Saeed Ezatolahi – Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Ahmad Norollahi, Vahid Amiri, Mehdi Taremi – Sardar Azmoun.
Qatar Stance | Iran has had tense relationships with several Arab countries in recent years but Qatar has been a rare ally and the impact they have had on the football world is serving as a role model for Iranians. So there is nothing but praise for Qatar among Iranian football figures and there are many who think that the migrant workers’ situation is not as bad as western media paints it. Iranian fans may well have banners protesting about something in Qatar, but it won’t be about the workers.
National Anthem | Iran’s current national anthem is the second it has had after the Islamic revolution in 1979. The first one was too long so in 1990 the government decided to replace it with a shorter one. The famous poet and songwriter Saed Bagheri wrote the lyrics and Hassan Riahi composed the music, although some accused him of copying South Korea’s national anthem (to be fair they have quite a bit in common). The lyrics refer to the Islamic revolution and in the final line it expresses the hope that the Islamic Republic of Iran will survive forever. Now, this is something fans may protest against and try to challenge in Qatar.
Cult Hero | Who else but the man who was the top scorer in the world at international level until Cristiano Ronaldo broke his 109-goal-record last year? Nearly two decades after his last appearance for Team Melli, Ali Daei (his nickname Shahriar means The King in farsi) is still the poster boy of Iranian football. He was one of eight Fifa legends taking part in the draw for the Qatar World Cup but has been banned from coaching for three years after an outburst against a club president. Has been supportive of the recent protests in the country and had his passport seized by the authorities for a week.