Iran’s World Cup is over. It was a wild ride and it had a bit of everything; last-minute winners, last-minute chances going begging, VAR controversies and a penalty save against Cristiano Ronaldo.
They’ve overcome adversity and stood for a very long time as equals to the last two European champions and beat the best team in Africa.
Their exit was bitter. Coach Carlos Queiroz is still finding Monday’s loss to Portugal hard to accept. He maintains Ronaldo should have been sent off for an elbow on Morteza Pouraliganji when a yellow card was produced after a video review.
“The reality is you stop the game for VAR and there is an elbow,” Queiroz said. “An elbow is a red card in the rules. The rules don’t say if it is Messi or Ronaldo it’s a little bit. It is a red card.
“I am not in a good mood, as you can see. There could have been at least one more penalty against Portugal, at least one. Five guys sitting upstairs and they don’t see an elbow. Give me a break.”
At home boundaries were broken. For the first time since the Islamic revolution in 1979, women watched a football match inside the monumental Azadi Stadium in the capital. Iran’s group stage game against Spain was one for the history books as the widely-derided, much-challenged ban on women entering stadiums was relaxed. It was that way again against Portugal as Tehran’s women sat side by side with their male counterparts.
That stadium ban had been one of the issues affecting the team en-route to the games with captain Masoud Shojaei speaking out in favour of overturning it. FIFA president Gianni Infantino – as well as Iranian president Hassan Rouhani – have both pledged to see the ban disappear.
Infantino visited the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis in March but was powerless to prevent 35 activists from being detained. The events of this past week could certainly help in that regard.
Iran’s final group stage game was also taking place against the backdrop of widespread civil unrest at home. Traders at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar took to the streets in protest on Monday as the country’s rial currency suffered another plunge against the dollar. Meanwhile the industries and trade ministry announced an import ban on more than 1,300 goods that could otherwise be produced at home.
US President Donald Trump tore up the nuclear deal in November with new sanctions due in August and November but the truth is that Iran has been under sanctions in one way, shape or form throughout the lifetime of all their current players.
To struggle is not new; even if Nike’s compliance with those US trade restrictions left many of the team bootless; even if travel restrictions limited Iran’s ability to organise friendlies against top-class opposition in the run-up.
And Queiroz has faced plenty of difficulties of his own throughout his volatile tenure as manager that first began in 2011. He has clashed with practically everyone involved in Iranian football at all levels.
Things reached a surreal nadir when earlier this year he texted the host of Iran’s most popular football show Navad during the broadcast to let him know what he thought about Ali Karimi, the legendary forward who was in the studio as a guest. Karimi had been part of Queiroz’s backroom team at one stage and was let go. He has not been shy since about leaving the boot in when it comes to criticism of the former Real Madrid boss.
Queiroz has been practically begging the Iranian football federation for a contract renewal and one sits on the table with a duration of six months. That is far, far too short for Queiroz, who wants four years, and he has the public backing of his players too. He has succeeded in creating a siege mentality around his squad. They are a unified bunch and one which is ready to put in the hard yards for their manager.
They’re already back in Tehran having arrived to a heroes’ welcome. Queiroz remains at the helm for now and, all things going to plan, will be leading Team Melli towards their Asian Cup campaign in 2019.
This World Cup will go down as a step in the right direction for Iranian football. However, a win at UAE 2019 – and a first Asian triumph since 1976 – will confirm Queiroz as a legend and his players as icons.
It has been difficult for Iran to put together two or three generations of talent in a row. The level of the league is low – something which annoys Queiroz no end – and the infrastructure is not always up to European standards. Football took a back seat after the revolution and during the Iran-Iraq war, and it was not until 1991 that it had a proper league.
Iran National team return to Iran, and get heroic welcome by Iranian people. . In World Cup 2018,not only Iran national team displayed impressive performances against European Champions, statistically speaking, they recorded highest points in their World Cup history(see slide #2) . . Credit: @carlosqueirozfan ISNA . #teammelli #iran #football #worldcup2018 #worldcup #استقبال #تیم_ملی_فوتبال_ایران
But the signs are good. A new crop led by Sardar Azmoun, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Mehdi Taremi – who missed that final chance against Portugal – should be in place for the next few qualifying campaigns at least.
Fans came to Russia in good numbers. Men and women attended games in unison and supporters travelled from all over. The diaspora means Iranians are spread throughout Europe and North America, and second generation Americans and Canadians had their faces painted in the Iran colours on matchdays.
The 2018 World Cup won’t go down as the end. It will go down as the beginning of a bright new era – whatever difficulties are facing Iran off the pitch.