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Iran: Asia’s top-ranked team hoping for a good show at World Cup

Iran hopes to advance to the round of 16 for the first time despite some turmoil in the lead-up to the tournament.

Iranian players pose for a team group photo before a match
In Group B, Iran will face England, Wales and the United States, all of whom are ranked higher than them. [Leonhard Foeger/Reuters]

Previous World Cup appearances: 1978,1998, 2006, 2014, 2018
Titles: 0
Best finish: Group stage
World Cup record: W2, D4, L9
Goals: 9
Biggest win: 2-1 vs USA (1998)
Key player: Mehdi Taremi
Ranking: 20
Fixtures: England (November 21), Wales (November 25), USA (November 29)

Iran’s World Cup hopes have been intertwined with political affairs as almost two months of protests, that began after death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody have rocked the country.

Tehran has also been accused of supplying Russia with drones used in the war in Ukraine.

Athletes, including footballers in the local league and in international matches, have refused to celebrate wins, trophies and goals since the start of the deadly protests.

Ukraine and a number of activists opposed to the Iranian state have called on FIFA for the team to be expelled from the World Cup.

Iran’s national football team, Team Melli, meanwhile, faces tough matches at the World Cup. Despite a rocky few months off the pitch in the leadup, the players remain hopeful of making history at the tournament.

In Group B, Iran will face England, Wales and the United States, all of whom are ranked higher than them.

At 20, Iran is the top Asian team in the FIFA rankings, above Japan and South Korea.

“I think Iran and Japan are most likely among Asian teams with the ability to pass the group stage of the World Cup,” Iran’s newly appointed head coach, the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, told Iranian media in October.

The most high-profile Iranian player is currently 30-year-old Mehdi Taremi, a forward who plays for Portuguese club Porto. Sardar Azmoun, a forward who plays for Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen, is another key player. Azmoun was injured while playing for Leverkusen in early October, but doctors say they are optimistic he will recover by the time Iran takes to the pitch in Qatar.

The Iranian team will make history if it advances from the group stage, a feat it has never managed despite coming close several times.

Also coached by Queiroz in 2018, Team Melli narrowly lost to Spain and Portugal.

Qatar football World Cup 2022 - GROUPSFor this World Cup, things might look slightly better for Iran who topped the qualifying group with 25 points and a goal difference of +11.

The team was then coached by Croatian Dragan Skočić, who registered significant records despite being at the helm for only about two-and-a-half years. He spent most of that time unable to coach due to the spread of the coronavirus.

Skočić won 15 of his 18 games as head coach. In that period, Iran scored 40 goals and conceded only eight, achieved their fastest-ever qualification to the World Cup, and the coach secured the longest winning streak among all head coaches in the history of Team Melli.

But disagreements with several players, including star striker Taremi, in addition to issues with federation officials, meant that Skočić’s time at Team Melli was eventually cut short when he was sacked in early July.

After controversial elections at the football federation, the new football chief Mehdi Taj – who has faced criticism in the Iranian media over alleged financial corruption – chose to bring back Queiroz.

Source: Al Jazeera