A few days ago, in the beginning of March, many football fans in Iran celebrated the birthday of Carlos Queiroz, Team Melli’s Portuguese manager. There are many disagreements between fans and critics on the job he has done, but the 61-year-old Queiroz is regarded by some as one of the best managers in the history of Iranian football. He is respected and loved for his charisma, passion and the job he has done in getting the best out of an Iran team who don’t have that cutting edge and flair of the past generations.
When “the past” is mentioned, it only has one meaning, the glorious successful days of the 1970s when Iran were the undisputed power of Asian football at the time. Three consecutive Asian Cup titles, their only appearance in the Olympics and Iran’s first ever appearance in the World Cup in 1978 of Argentina, all mark some of Iran’s biggest accomplishments to the day. A crop of players which has remained with the people ever since, generation after generation, some have never even watched the players and team in question but when the word “legend” is mentioned, they know it’s about one of the greatest characters and goalkeepers in Iranian history, the late Nasser Hejazi. Or if they hear of Persepolis, they know the Reds only have one king, one “Sultan” and that is Ali Parvin. These are names and memories that will forever remain in the history books, but behind every success and an icon or this case, icons, there’s always a teacher who deserves credit for the accomplishments. The man in question is Mashhad born, former Taj (Esteghlal) player and founder of Aboomoslem football club, Heshmat Mohajerani.
Mohajerani, who is considered as a father figure to the modern Iranian football along with a couple of other names, was born and raised in Mashhad and he’s one of the founders of one of the oldest sporting and cultural clubs in Iran, Aboomoslem in Mashhad. In the modern era of Iranian football, one of the key issues gripping football development in the country which goes unnoticed is the lack of investment in young coaches by the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) but in 1969, Mohajerani who had hung up his boots, was sent to Japan for a 3-months long coaching course led by the well known German coach and FIFA instructor, Dettmar Cramer. This course was the first of its kind and the IFF invested in Mohajerani and the investment was fruitful as he went on to become the most successful manager of the National Team.
As the pressure on Iranian coaches and managers increases by the day, Mohajerani is a perfect example of a local coach who, through the right education and with faith and time, produced a team of winners. His preference to work with young players was noticed as he was initially appointed as the manager of Iran U-20s in 1971. One of the key components of being a good coach, is always looking to learn more from the game, he enjoyed that part of his job and he was always looking to travel to other countries to learn more from their football culture and their coaches. Some of Iran’s most talented youngsters at the time played under him and he implemented an attacking, fluent style of football in youth level of the national team setup which was very successful. He led Iran U-20s to an unprecedented 4 Asian Youth Championships (1973, 1974, 1975, 1976). Iran has not won any youth competition since then.
This unparalleled success did not go unnoticed as he was appointed as assistant to Iran’s Irish manager, Frank O’Farrell. Working under the former Manchester United manager taught him a lot as he used this opportunity to watch O’Farrell closely and learn more about his training methods and the way he dealt with players. After O’Farrell left his job in 1975, Mohajerani was promoted to become Iran’s manager. At this time he was in charge of Iran U-20s, U-23s and the senior side.
One of his traits was the way he dealt with the players, he maintained a close relationship with his players but he had the respect of every single one of them. When asked about what made him such a great man manager, he claimed that his laziness and poor character as a player, made him realise how to deal with each individual player. He created a close-knit environment and atmosphere in the changing room and he strongly believed that a close relationship between the players will help create a more determined team which will result in players working harder for each other.
His first success as Iran manager came in the 1976 Asian Cup, when he led Iran to their third successive Asian Cup triumph. They played a very strong Kuwait side in the final, managed by Mario Zagallo, but it was a stunning goal by Ali Parvin which won Iran the game. Before the tournament, Mohajerani faced heavy criticism for introducing some young, unfamiliar names such as Hassan Nazari and Ebrahim Ghasempoor but they both went on to become key figures in the side in the next few years.
Qualifying for the Olympic games has been one of the most sought after and rare achievements in Iranian football. A nation with rich football history of over 60 years but with only one Olympics’ appearance. That appearance came with Mohajerani leading his country to the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. Iran even qualified for the second round, losing to eventual bronze medalists, the Soviet Union.
One of his iconic games in charge of Iran came when they faced Kuwait again in their last World Cup qualifiers for the 1978 World Cup. Iran had already qualified and there was not much riding on this game, so Mohajerani put out a team completely made up of U-21s players. Before the game Mario Zagallo accused him of not playing fairly and not taking the game seriously. Mohajerani shrugged off the suggestions and his trust was paid back as his young team beat a fully strengthened Kuwait, 2-1. After the game Zagallo admitted his endless respect for Mohajerani and his coaching abilities.
Qualifying for the World Cup marked a huge point in the history of Iranian football. This achievement put Iran on the map in footballing terms and reaffirmed their position as Asia’s elite team and now they were representing the great continent on the World’s biggest stage. A tough group with Holland, Scotland and Peru, was an exciting challenge for him and his players to test themselves under the world’s watchful eyes.
As they prepared to face a strong Holland side, who went on to be eventual runners up, Mohajerani faced a difficult tactical decision. Whether to play a fluent attacking football against a side who were the masters of offensive football, or go against his principles and try to defend for 90 minutes. At the end he decided to go with his usual 4-3-3, citing his decision on “I didn’t want to have any regrets at the end of the game” so he decided to give it a go and let the players play with freedom. They lost the game 3-0 but they fought until the very end to give a good image of Iranian football. After another defeat to Peru and a hard earned 1-1 draw against a very strong Scotland side, the team returned to Tehran looking to the future to build on this team’s success.
After his resignation from Iran’s manager post, he went on to manage other neighbouring nations such as Oman. In 1980, UAE terminated the contract of well known English manager Don Revie, to put Mohajerani in charge. He remains a well respected figure in those countries for what he did and his pragmatism to help them develop as footballing nations. Under his guidance and his management, Iranian football was heading towards the right way. Most of the players who played under him went on to become successful managers or influential figures in Iranian football. Andranik Eskandarian, Rasoul Korbekandi, Hossein Faraki, Ali Parvin, late Nasser Hejazi, GholamHossein Mazloumi and Hassan Rowshan are just some of the names who looked at him as a father figure.
37 years on, Carlos Queiroz and Heshmat Mohajerani are similar. They have the respect of the players and they work and base their styles to get the most out of what they have. Yes, the methods and tactics and the way their teams play are the exact opposite but they both have a certain philosophy which is effective in their own way.
Investments are needed in the current state of Iranian football, but Mohajerani’s story and the team of the 70s prove that billions of dollars aren’t always needed to produce a golden generation, it takes the right ideas, a little bit of courage but most importantly, stability and the right education to implement the perfect foundations to an era of success.
Today is a tough time to be an Iranian coach, so much criticism and a pressured environment created by the media with so much unnecessary comparison between local coaches and foreign managers. All the players produced in the history of our football are the production of the efforts put in by grassroots’ local coaches so respect needs to be given, criticism should be aimed at the authorities for a lack of support and investment to increase the level of coaching. Mohajerani and his achievements are the blueprint for every local coach and the Iranian Football Federation. It shows that with the right investments, education and experience for young coaches, you can create a generation of footballers that can create history once again.
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