|Iran took three points from the match against neighbours and reigning Asian Cup champions Iraq [AFP]
Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi dedicated his team's opening Asian Cup win over Iraq to the victims of the Iranian plane crash, while revealing he had tried to take his players' minds off the emotion of the fierce football rivalry with their neighbours.
The teams observed a moment of silence before the kickoff of Tuesday night's Group D match in Al Rayyan, Qatar, to remember at least 77 people who died in the IranAir crash near Orumiyah the day before.
"It's important to dedicate the victory to all the families that lost their dear family members in the airplane accident, and our players dedicated themselves to win this game and give some condolence to those families," Ghotbi, an Iranian-American, said at the post-match press conference.
"I think football is only a sport, but if we can do something special at the same time then we are very happy."
A few minutes earlier, his team had celebrated a late 2-1 win over the defending Asian Cup champions that took Iran to the top of Group D as they bid for their first trophy since 1976.
A rivalry based on the natural sporting enmity of neighbours – as well as historic reasons such as the eight-year war between the countries in the 1980s – had resulted in a high-octane contest at a stadium that will host World Cup matches in 2022.
Iraq are bottom of the group after the Koreans drew with the UAE earlier on Monday, and Ghotbi said he was happy to have come away from the emotions of this match with a full complement of points.
"When these two countries play there is so much rivalry and history that it is hard for the players to focus, and it can become more of an emotional, fighting game"
Afshin Ghotbi, Iran coach
"When these two countries play there is so much rivalry and history that it is hard for the players to focus, and it can become more of an emotional, fighting game," Ghotbi said in a soft Californian drawl more suited to a red-carpet interview than a press conference in a country that, until the World Cup announcement in December, was one of the outposts of Asian football.
"So I'm very happy that after conceding a goal early in the match they came back to get all three points. We tried to emotionally settle our players down and talk about the organisation in our defence.
"I think Iran and Iraq is rivalry that has been around for a long time. You look at all the classic rivalries across the world and it's one of the things that makes our sport so special.
"I think it's nothing to do with politics, our footballers are just sportsmen."
Younis Mahmoud, who scored the winner for Iraq in the 2007 final against Saudi Arabia, opened the scoring after 13 minutes for the Arabian team but Gholamreza Rezaei equalised just before half time, with Iman Mobali scoring the winner for Iran six minutes from the end.
Both these teams could conceivably be back here in 11 years' time, with Iran having already reached three World Cups, but the immediate concern is to navigate out of a group that also contains North Korea and the United Arab Emirates.
Iran play North Korea in the next match on Saturday before Iraq take on UAE in a match that will be crucial if they are to go on to defend their crown.
Ghotbi said that, despite defeat, Iraq should not be underestimated.
"It was important that we came back in the first half because I know how Iraq play, and if we are a goal down in the second half they are masters at killing time," he said.
"Iraq are fighters in every position and, especially in set pieces, they are very dangerous. You will see throughout the tournament what a good team they are and this is why they were champions in 2007."
Source: Al Jazeera