Playing in a World Cup Group F containing Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia was always going to be difficult, even before Iran’s lack of warm-up games factored into the equation.
After qualifying last June, Iran played their first preparation game on March 5 against Guinea. On the same evening, South Korea waere playing their 14th warm-up match.
The fact that Iran looked rusty as they lost 2-1 was no surprise given the lack of game time together. A training camp in Portugal in September was scrapped, apparently due to a lack of funds.
But Iran are hoping coach Carlos Queiroz can work wonders at the World Cup using his tactical knowhow and extensive international experience.
Since taking over three years ago, the former Real Madrid and Portugal coach has built a tight unit.
“To have such a coach gives us confidence,” Iran midfielder Javad Nekounam told The Associated Press. “We came through a very tough qualification group. Now we are focused only on performing well at the World Cup. We know it will not be easy but we also know that we are good enough to make our country proud.”
Iran qualified for the World Cup by finishing at the top of their Asian group just weeks after seemingly being down and out. The team rallied to win their last three games without conceding a goal, including a final day 1-0 victory over South Korea.
The game was settled by a strike from Reza Ghoochannejhad, a Dutch-born striker who came into his own in the second half of the qualification campaign and who is expected to be the team’s main offensive threat in Brazil.
Scoring goals is going to be the main issue for the team. While Iran are well-organised defensively under Queiroz, finding the net hasn’t always been easy. After defeating Lebanon 4-0 in Tehran in a qualifier, Iran managed to score only four goals in the other seven games.
Queiroz has actively searched for European-born players eligible to represent Iran. Ashkan Dejabah, a former Germany youth international, spent eight years in the Bundesliga before moving to Fulham in 2012 to play in the Premier League, while Daniel Davari has emerged to challenge Rahman Ahmadi for the goalkeeping position. Davari, with an Iranian father, plays for Eintracht Braunschweig in the Bundesliga.
These new players have linked up with the likes of Nekounam, who spent six seasons at Osasuna in Spain, and former Bolton midfielder Andranik Teymourian to build a team with a blend of youth and experience.
“When we go to Brazil, we will have the whole nation behind us and that will make us perform even better,” Teymourian said. “It is something we take very seriously. We will give everything to succeed.”
With several European-based players in the squad, Iran will be heading to the World Cup with plenty of top level international experience.
Forward Reza Ghoochannejhad was born in the Netherlands and plays in England, while winger Ashkan Dejagah was raised in Germany and spent much of his career in the Bundesliga before moving to Premier League club Fulham. Goalkeeper Daniel Davari is another, born in Germany and playing in the Bundesliga.
Combined with Javad Nekounam, the team’s captain and one their most experienced players, Iran will need to come together as a team to have any chance of making it out of Group F.
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He has now scored nine goals in 11 games.
A January move from Standard Liege to Charlton in England’s second division has increased his playing time ahead of the World Cup and now the player dubbed “Gucci,” who has become one of Iran’s biggest stars, should arrive in Brazil fit and ready for action.
The dynamic Al-Kuwait midfielder has a habit of coming up with a goal just when his team needs it most and has found the target 37 times in his 136 international appearances.
Now 33, Nekounam does not cover as much ground as he once did but he reads the game as well as any.
This year’s tournament is likely to be his last World Cup.
Injuries have prevented him from showing Spanish fans his best, but there have been enough flashes to demonstrate an eye for an unexpected pass and a fancy flick.
Shojaei doesn’t score as many goals as he possibly should, but he can make things happen for others.
Davari’s European experience is one reason why Queiroz holds him in high esteem. While Eintracht Brauschweig may not be in the Bundesliga for much longer, being a goalkeeper for the bottom team at least results in plenty of practice.
Davari made a positive initial impression on the international stage but made some major mistakes against Guinea. He still has much to learn, but if he can settle with the defence before the World Cup, he could be what Iran needs.
Dejagah came to prominence in Germany with Wolfsburg, making 150 appearances for the Bundesliga team before moving to the Premier League and Fulham in August 2012.
It took Dejagah, now 27, time to settle in England but he has since showed his value with direct running and the ability to take on defenders and chip in with regular goals.
Injuries curtailed his first season in the Premier League but if he can stay fit, Dejagah will have a major part to play for Iran in Brazil.