Sports

Team Melli looks to shock the world during 2018 World Cup

It was an own goal, in the dying minutes of the match, by the way of a set piece. It happened in the cruelest way possible for Morocco, but in Iranians’ minds, they did not care one bit.

At the final whistle from the referee, some Iranian players immediately fell to the pitch in jubilation, their coaching staff flocked away from the technical area to embrace the heroes and fans celebrating deliriously in the stands.

In the third minute of additional time, Saman Ghoddos was released by Vahid Amiri’s through ball, gained a positional advantage in pursuit of it and was clipped by Sofyan Amrabat, resulting in a free kick for Iran in what could have been its last grasp for a victory.

Ghoddos could claim a majority of the credit for the goal and the win, because he created the chance that gifted Iran three points and, in superstitious terms, he kissed the match ball before putting it down for the set piece.

Midfielder Ehsan Hajsafi, 28, who took over Masoud Shojaei for the captaincy after the latter being substituted in the second half, whipped the ball in the box, and Moroccan defender Aziz Bouhaddouz deflected the ball into the goal by mistake.

Hajsafi and Mehdi Taremi, who was closest to Bouhaddouz when the ball’s trajectory was disrupted, led the team, whose members flocked to the Iranian crowd and celebrated.

It was an emotional catharsis for so many reasons.

The opening game against Morocco in St. Petersburg was the second win ever for Team Melli in the FIFA World Cup since the famous 2-1 win over the U.S. National Team in the 1998 World Cup, which took place in France.

Team Melli only managed to muster two draws and four defeats in the two ensuing World Cups it has participated in.

That contest 20 years ago even warranted a reaction from the White House press secretary Mike McCurry, due to the strained relationship incurred between the two countries by the Iranian Revolution and the infamous hostage crisis. Iran’s standing in international politics has only worsened, marred by the differing views on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between the recent two U.S. administrations and U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Just days before the World Cup started, Nike, which provides American apparel, refused to supply Iranian players with footwear that they had been wearing.

They cited the American withdrawal from the JCPOA, even though the Trump administration had been ferociously denouncing the agreement months ago, announced the official withdrawal and imposed sanctions a month before the opening ceremony in Russia. Players could, Nike said, purchase its equipment at their own expenses.

“This last comment of Nike was, in my personal view, an unnecessary statement. Everybody is aware about the sanctions,” Carlos Queiroz, the head coach of Team Melli, told Sky Sports ahead of the tournament. “They should come out and apologize because this arrogant conduct against 23 boys is absolutely ridiculous and unnecessary.”

This, however, is not the first that Queiroz and Iran have faced logistical problems.

In the buildup to the tournament four years ago in Brazil, the federation was not able to collect sponsorship funds and minister a warmup friendly with Ghana due to international sanctions and an embargo. Sportswear was in short supply; players and coaching staff lamented the difficult circumstance they found themselves in.

Four years later, despite being the highest ranked team in Asia — normally the deciding factor to lure companies for sponsorship deals, the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran had to pay Adidas, the German sports apparel manufacturer, to supply the team with proper on-field and training equipment.

Politics is very much intertwined with sports in Iran.

Queiroz, at 65, is renowned for his mastery in organizing a team into a fortress that is hard for the opposition to dismantle.

The gray-haired tactician’s achievements are monumental, ranging from Manchester United’s winning campaign in the Champions League that involved a defeat against the rising Barcelona, when serving as No. 2 to Sir Alex Ferguson, to Iran’s two successful World Cup qualifying campaigns.

The theme throughout his career is the defense.

The key to Iran’s success in not conceding goals, as observed by soccer historian and Guardian columnist Jonathan Wilson, is that two lines of defense, trying to prevent opposition from utilizing the space between the midfield and backline, and the tremendous “mental and physical discipline” required to maintain the pressure.

That Iran only conceded four goals in total in two successive qualifying cycles is a testament to the dedication trickled down from Queiroz, to his coaching staff, to his players. In the last tournament, had Lionel Messi not sparked that magical curling long-range shot after a sudden cut inside during additional time, Iran would’ve gotten a point.

The Persian team, however, achieved heights with a lot stacked against them, at least in the eyes of Queiroz.

“You won’t go anywhere with current organization” — referring to the level of domestic league in Asia — “and in that competitive environment,” Queiroz said in an interview with World Soccer magazine. “No matter how many good coaches you have.”

He has been consistent in the lack of cooperation for tournaments from the national federation and even threatened to resign multiple times.

He only recoiled from doing so because of the dedication and commitment he felt from his boys: “I have a lot of respect for the Iranian fans and the players represent the fans and the country, but I fell in love with the commitment, passion and attitude of the Iranian players.”

Facing criticism from the F.F.I.R.I., Queiroz, out of the desire to improve the state of Iranian soccer, disregarded the attempts to silence his judgment: “They can fire me, I don’t care, but it’s time to express my opinion because the Iranian fans deserve that and the players deserve full support to be ready for this competition.”

In 2011, before Queiroz took over at the helm of Team Melli, he brought Portugal to the round of 16 in South Africa.

At the time, Iran was ranked seventh in Asia, and it leapt to the top just as his first World Cup came around as Iranian coach.

For a nation that attained third place in the 2004 Asian Cup and produced Bundesliga winners Ali Karimi and Ali Daei — who still holds the highest tally of goals scored in internationals — it was a time of despair.

Despite deprived resources within the country, Team Melli defied expectation and conventional wisdom.

Queiroz capitalized on his sprawling network in soccer and started intense scouting the moment he fully assessed the situation in Iran soccer, that could only be described as indolence in the administrative level.

He began the top-down transformation of Iranian soccer: 14 players, up from nine in 2014, are based in Europe, and now more players are receiving interest from the top tier of European leagues.

Perhaps a little rattled by the world stage, Iran seemed a bit unsettled in the beginning of the game and saw confusion in front of the goal in the early stages, but the team managed to stabilize after halftime and frustrate Morocco.

“We’ll dedicate this win, after so many sacrifices,” Queiroz said in the post-match press conference, “to the real fans of the national team.”

He emphasized the team’s duty to the Iranian people no matter how difficult the group remains with games against Spain and Portugal still to be played.

Queiroz will also remain as the head coach until the end of Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup next year in United Arab Emirates, providing relief to fans and players of the national team.

June 27, 2018

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Wen Xi Chen


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