Population: 68,020,000
Area: 1,648,000 km²
Capital: Tehran
Language: Persian, Turkic

Iran qualified as runners-up to Japan in AFC final group B.
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Feb 22 Iran v Chinese Taipei 4-0
Mar 01 Iran v Costa Rica 3-2
May 28 Croatia v Iran 2-2
May 31 Iran v Bosnia & H. 5-2
Jun 07 Tunisia v Iran

Participations: (2) 1978 and 1998
Best placing: First round 1978 and 1998
Topscorer: Hamid Estili, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Iraj Danaifar and Hassan Rowshan, 1 goal

Jun 11 - IRN v MEX  in Nuremberg
Jun 17 - IRN v POR  in Frankfurt
Jun 21 - IRN v ANG  in Leipzig

- Iran in Group D -
Jan Alsos: 3rd place
Pierre Boisrond: 4th place
Ruud Doevendans: 3rd place
Mike Gibbons: 4th place
Peter Goldstein: 4th place
Paul Marcuccitti: 3rd place
Felipe Santos: 3rd place
PREDICTION: First round exit


by Paul Marcuccitti

    Itís almost hard to believe that Iran is only going to the World Cup finals for the third time. When the Iranians first qualified (for Argentina 78), they had won the last three Asian Cups. Continental rivals Saudi Arabia and Japan, who both seem to be fixtures at the tournament now, did not debut at the World Cup finals until the 1990s.

    Of course, the Iranian Revolution disrupted football in 1979 when the national team was at the height of its powers. After the success of reaching the 1978 World Cup finals, Iran did not return to World Cup action until attempting to qualify for Italia 90. Organised domestic football also hibernated for ten years.

    The Islamic Republic that resulted from the 1979 Revolution is still with us, but normality has returned to Iranian football with Team Melli (the national team) reaching both France 98 and Germany 06.

    Indeed, Iran qualified with some style despite stumbling to an early home loss against Jordan. In their decisive qualification group, the Iranians booked their place in Germany with a match to spare.

    Iranís success might continue with a bold showing at the World Cup finals because this is one of the most talented teams in the nationís history. The outstanding performance in the qualifiers was preceded by a fine run at the 2004 Asian Cup in China. The Iranians reached a semi-final against China and the host nation needed a penalty shootout to eliminate them.

    Branko Ivankovic has been Team Melliís manager for the last four years. Before he was appointed to the position, Ivankovic, a Croat, was an assistant to compatriot Miroslav Blazevic. Together they took Croatia to the 1998 World Cup semi-finals and they then teamed up in Iran. Ivankovic replaced Blazevic in the top job after Iran failed to qualify for Korea/Japan.

    Ivankovic wouldnít be too displeased with the group the Iranians were drawn in. Joining Iran in Group D are Mexico, Portugal and Angola. The Iranians must have a great chance of defeating Angola and a win in that match, combined with a result against one of the groupís favourites, could give Iran an unlikely berth in the second round.

    Unfortunately for Iran, the schedule is a little unfavourable. The Iranians play Angola in their last group game Ė how they must wish that they got a crack at the African team earlier in the tournament.

    Most of Team Melliís players will be drawn from the Iranian Premier League. Six likely squad members are based in Europe, including five that play in the German Bundesliga.

    It appears that Branko Ivankovic is already close to settling on his starting team. He has used a lot of players but there is a group that he has routinely selected for recent internationals. (This has led some critics to say that Ivankovic is too conservative.)

    His number one goalkeeper is undoubtedly the imposing Ebrahim Mirzapour who plays for Foolad FC, the Iranian Premier Leagueís defending champion. Mirzapour kept four clean sheets (out of six) in Iranís decisive World Cup qualification group, and that was an important part of the teamís success. Vahid Taleblou (Esteghlal) should be one of Mirzapourís reserve Ďkeepers.

    Experienced central defender Yahya Golmohammadi (Saba Battery) is probably one of the first names Ivankovic writes on the team sheet. He was surprisingly omitted from Iranís squad for France 98 but now heís one of the teamís leaders. Golmohammadi should be joined in the centre of Team Melliís defence by Rahman Rezaei who has enjoyed a lot of success in Italy with Messina.

    There are a few options in the full-back positions. Sattar Zare (Bargh Shiraz) is the most likely starter on the left and young Hossein Kaebi (Foolad FC) plays at right-back. Look out for Kaebi, heís just 20 years old and a potential star. Another youngster, Mohammad Nosrati (Pas), could start anywhere in the back four. Nosrati became a national hero last year when he scored the winning goal against Bahrain which ensured Iranís qualification.

    Another full-back option is Mehdi Mahdavikia (Hamburger SV), a former Asian Player of the Year. Mahdavikia impressed at France 98 and he usually plays in midfield. But he also has experience at full-back and he may be used there if Branko Ivankovic makes tactical changes.

    In midfield, expect to see the consistent Javad Nekounam (Al-Sharjah, United Arab Emirates). Nekounam can score the occasional goal, even though he normally plays just in front of the back four.

    All Iranian fans will be hoping that Ali Karimi (Bayern Munich) makes a successful recovery from an ankle injury well before the World Cup finals begin. Another former Asian Player of the Year, Karimi is a highly-skilled midfielder and has an excellent goal scoring record with Iran.

    This yearís tournament will have special significance for Ferydoon Zandi (FC Kaiserslautern) as the left-sided midfielder was born in Germany and has lived his entire life in the World Cupís host nation. Having an Iranian father made him eligible to play for Team Melli. Zandi has been a national team regular since choosing to play for Iran.

    Mehdi Mahdavikia completes the first-choice midfield but, as mentioned, he is also an option at full-back.

    Andranik Teymourian (Abu Moslem) is another midfield option. He has worked his way into the team in recent internationals as a replacement when Mahdavikia has been unavailable. Mohammad Alavi (Foolad FC) and Moharram Navidkia (Vfl Bochum, on loan to Sepahan) are also talented young midfielders and consistent members of Team Melliís squad. Alavi plays well at defensive midfield and can be used in the back four.

    The quality list of likely midfielders in Iranís squad also includes the left-sided Mehrzad Madanchi (Perspolis) and Mojtaba Jabbari (Esteghlal). Jabbari has been given the chance to impress in recent friendlies.

    There are no prizes for guessing who Branko Ivankovicís first-choice forwards are: Ali Daei (Saba Battery) and Vahid Hashemian (Hannover 96). Daei, of course, is a veteran and a decorated striker who played in the Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League. Now aged 37, Daei has lost a bit of pace but heís still a fine finisher.

    Vahid Hashemian is a versatile forward who can drop comfortably into an attacking midfield position when Ivankovic leaves a single player up front. Hashemianís two goals in Iranís home win over Japan last year put Team Melli on course for World Cup qualification.

    The promising Arash Borhani (Pas) should be part of Iranís squad. Borhani has starred in Iranís Olympic team and might be used from the bench whenever an injection of pace is needed in attack. Javad Kazemian (Perspolis) is yet another young forward option.

    With so much competition for places, there may be no room in Ivankovicís squad for experienced forward Gholamreza Enayati (Esteghlal), the leading scorer in the Iranian Premier League.

    Most observers will expect Team Melli to make an early exit at the World Cup finals. But the Iraniansí Group D opponents would be unwise to underestimate them as they certainly have enough ability to surprise their more aristocratic rivals.

    The second round might just be beyond the Iranians in Germany, however, with their impressive bank of talented young players, 2010 could be their time.




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