It has been almost a year since Iran’s heart breaking, yet somewhat expected, exit from the 2014 World Cup. While for other nations who participated in the World Cup, these 12 months have been a relatively quiet period, for Iran it has been anything but. From contract disputes between manager, Carlos Queiroz and the Iranian FA, to a controversial exit in the 2015 Asian Cup, resignation of Queiroz and his return just a few weeks later. Iranian fans have certainly endured an emotional ride in the last 365 days. But as things are beginning to calm, Team Melli are set to kick start their long road to Russia 2018.
Around 400 miles to the north east of Tehran, Iran are expected to record a relatively easy win against their hosts Turkmenistan in their capital city Ashgabat to embark on this journey which will last around 2 years. While the taste of world cup participation for the fourth time is still fresh amongst the Iranian faithful, it is not hope that has gripped everyone, but expectation of a fifth appearance which Queiroz and his men will surely be aware of. The burden of qualifying for two consecutive world cups, which Iran has never managed to achieve, will weigh heavily on the shoulders of the men in charge of Iranian football.
In the build up to the Road to Russia, Iran has faced some turmoil. The ever so popular Queiroz and his long disputes with Iranian FA and Sports Ministry, his subsequent resignation and the uproar amongst fans which somewhat forced the authorities to reach an agreement with the Portuguese as he agreed to continue his work with the Middle Eastern giants. April marked the fourth anniversary of his appointment as Team Melli manager. There are many debates between fans and experts on the job he has done at the helm. The conservative tactics, which has been unknown in Iranian national team, hasn’t received a great reception by everyone. An ever ageing squad of players to whom Queiroz seem to be very loyal to, has also received some criticism.
History dictates that the three times AFC Asian Cup winners, should play an offensive game. But with what seems to be a declining generation of footballers and an ageing squad, Queiroz’ style suited Iran.
Queiroz’s team boasted one of the oldest squads in the world cup and the highest number of over 30 players in a starting 11 when they lined up against Nigeria in Curitiba. An average age of 28.9 years and with players such as Javad Nekounam, Jalal Hosseini, Andranik Teymourian, Masoud Shojaei and Amirhossein Sadeghi all on the wrong side of 30 and on the decline, a transition in generations was overdue. But by the time the Asian Cup arrived in January 2015, there had already been significant changes to the squad, when Iran lined up against Qatar, the average age of the starting 11 had decreased to 27.5. Players such as Morteza Pouraliganji (22), Vahid Amiri (26), Vouria Ghafouri (27), Soroush Rafiei (24) and Sardar Azmoun (20), plus an already installed Alireza Jahanbakhsh (21), gave Iran a new, yet younger look and a glimpse of what fans could be expecting in the near future.
In the past few months, Iran lost their long standing captain, Javad Nekounam, as he led Team Melli for the last time against Sweden in a friendly in March. A record 152 caps, an ever present figure in the changing room and a captain whom Queiroz held in very high regards. His international retirement marked the end of an era but kicked off what could be a huge shift in generations.
But the main question remains, although a transition is needed, is the next generation ready to step up to the plate and takeover the mammoth tasks ahead? If you talk to Iranian fans all over the world, they will tell you the future is bright in terms of players that are coming through. The pick of them may be NEC Nijmegen winger, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who has just ended his second season in Dutch football, picking up Ereste Divise’s Player Of The Year award on the way. He has captained the Iranian U-23 side on many occasions and has already amassed 15 senior caps including an appearance in the 2014 World Cup. One of his close friends is the Rubin Kazan striker, Sardar Azmoun. Only aged 20, he has already built up a steady career in Russia after his departure from Iran only aged 17, constant links and reports of interests from Europe’s top clubs have made him a fan favourite already with a lot of eyes on him from Team Melli fans. His fantastic goal against Qatar in the Asian Cup proved why he is considered such a hot prospect. Players such as Naft Tehran’s 22 year old goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and his former teammate Morteza Pouraliganji who is a central defender for Tianjin in the Chinese Super League, are players who the coaches at the national setup hold in high regards.
But a name who has only burst onto the scene in the past few months is 18 year old midfielder, Saeed Ezatollahi, who plies his trade in the Spanish capital for Atletico Madrid. Ezatollahi became the youngest player to appear in the Persian Gulf Pro League when he made his debut for Malavan only days after his 16th birthday in 2012. But he attracted more attention with some eye catching performances in the 2013 U-17s World Cup before his subsequent move to the Spanish giants the following summer. Some tout him as the long term replacement of Nekounam for Team Melli although there are some differences between their styles of play. Ezatollahi made his senior debut a few days ago in a friendly 1-0 win against Uzbekistan, along with a host of young uncapped players such as Milad Mohammadi, Hossein Kanaani, Mehdi Taremi and the goalscorer of the game, Mehdi Torabi.
While individually, the future may be set and with recent friendlies Queiroz has shown faith in the younger generation and silenced some critics, the collective idea remains a problem for some parts of the Iranian football community. As Iran are to begin their long journey to Russia, the question that experts wonder about is whether Queiroz will change his conservative style of football and use the energy and the immense emerging talents to take Iran back to their offensive game. It seems unlikely as Queiroz remains positive and believes his approach gives Iran the best chance of success.
Whatever the case may be, when the game against Turkmenistan kicks off on Tuesday the 16th of June, all eyes will be on the players on the pitch and expectations of a football mad nation will be at their peak. Although, the team on the pitch will have a different look about it, from new players brought in to the squad, to a new captain, Andranik Teymourian, they will all be aware of the pressure to make a statement with a positive result and performance, as the rest of the continent will look to see whether the number one ranked team in Asia will continue their strong form in the last 12 months or not.