For a man who just a few months ago quit as Iran coach after falling out with his employers, only to make a dramatic U-turn, Carlos Queiroz looks extremely relaxed. He seems relieved that his team has survived the turbulence and, as a unit, stayed unaffected by the unspecified “pressures” that threatened to derail the progress Team Melli made since he took charge of the national team in 2011.
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Queiroz is the most popular man in Iranian foootball. The likes of Sardar Azmoun, Akshan Dejagah and talismanic skipper Andranik Teymourian enjoy tremendous popularity but Queiroz has become a hero. A recent trip to Bangalore, where Iran played India in their 2018 World Cup qualifier, the former South Africa and Portugal boss was mobbed by fans. Some bought him flowers, thanking him for deciding to stay with Iran. Others stalked him at the team hotel and at the ground, desperately seeking a selfie with the 62-year-old, who did not disappoint them.
“Passion for football among the Iranians is unique in nature. No other country has such love and passion for the game like Iran,” Queiroz tells Sport 360, though he is wary of the pressure on his shoulders to qualify for a second successive World Cup. “It’s extremely tough to repeat what we did for them [in 2014]. It is very, very hard. But that’s why we have to work harder than before.”
Iran are favourites to top Group D and after a slow start to the campaign, which saw them held to a 1-1 draw by Turkmenistan, Team Melli have recorded with back-to-back wins over Guam (6-0) and India (3-0).
“All the games were different,” Queiroz explains. “The Turkmenistan game was at the end of the season which was very odd for both teams. They came with a great attitude and they scored because of our mistake. Against Guam, we were playing at home so had to dictate play and impose our style. We did well. India surprised and confused us with their aggressive approach. After a tough first half, we gathered ourselves, altered strategy and changed things in second.”
Iran will take on Oman in Muscat on Thursday. It is expected to be their toughest game so far but Queiroz knows the real test begins at the next stage, when they will come face-to-face with continental heavyweights. At No. 39, Iran are currently Asia’s highest ranked team, though Queiroz is under no illusion as to who the ‘actual’ top nations are. He believes it is a certainty that Japan, South Korea and Australia will be at Russia 2018, with the rest left to fight for the elusive fourth place. Iran’s competitors for that one spot include Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Uzbekistan and China.
“The FIFA ranking is just a ranking – it doesn't mean too much. But our position in comparison with other countries does reflect the development process. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Australia are in a better position because of the capacity they have. It's nice to be there and we prefer to be Asia's best but we are facing the reality and believe that we have other things we should do to keep that position and become more strong.
“Australia, Japan and South Korea have a lot of players playing in Europe; that’s an advantage for them. But one thing is sure, they are going to be with us for 90 minutes and we are going to make life difficult for them. On the pitch, it’s just us and them after all.”
Off the pitch, international sanctions on Iran have led to shortages in crucial funding. Iran could not access the funds from FIFA and the AFC, including their share of the 2014 World Cup kitty and because of the restrictions on money transfers, the federation has struggled to organise international friendlies, essentially making Iran an international pariah. Even the country’s clubs could not employ foreign coaches because of the ban on banking transactions, something that severely hampered development of the domestic game.
But those sanctions have now been lifted and there is renewed hope in Tehran. It is estimated that FIFA and the AFC owe Iran up to $10 million; Queiroz is now bullish about the future. “There is a lot of hope now. It’s all very positive. We need to invest a lot in youth development and infrastructure which can be done now.”
After a 2014 World Cup campaign that will be remembered for their stubborn performance against Argentina, Iran are going through a transitional phase in which the old guard has been replaced by youth. It has been a fairly seamless transition so far, with Iran winning nine out of the 13 matches played since Brazil 2014. They have scored 23 goals in the process, with 20-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun leading the charts.
Queiroz is confident about his roadmap for Iranian football.
“The young players are the spirit of the team,” he says. “They have refreshed the enthusiasm, desire and pride of Team Melli. This transition is also the strategic movement for the future of Iranian football. You got to believe that you are doing the right thing for the team. You got to believe this is the right thing for the future. And you got to trust yourself and your players. I believe I am doing all these things. God bless my decisions.”
It’s an attitude that personifies this Iranian side – from the most experienced player, skipper Teymourian, to youngsters like Azmoun and Dejagah. And in Queiroz, they seem to have a perfect motivator.
“The challenge for Iran is not only to be one of the best in Asia but we have great potential to challenge some of the best in Europe. Not in the level of Germany, France or Argentina, Brazil. But there is no reason for Iran not to be a team in level of Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Uruguay…That should be the challenge in the next 10 years.”
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