Queiroz's new faith in youth shows he is right man for Iran

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Man in charge: Carlos Queiroz.

Team Melli have not lost a regulation time match at the Asian Cup since 1996 but in Australia, they fell to their kryptonite of penalty kicks yet again. Iraq, coincidentally, the last side to beat Iran in 90 minutes 19 years and 28 matches ago, were the opponents as Carlos Queiroz’s side went crashing out of the competition at the quarter-final stage.

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Queiroz, Iran’s Portuguese manager, had set a semi-final target for the side and despite falling short, he and the team have returned home largely as heroes to the 77 million-strong Iranian public. Domestic critics, including a few members of the press and some Iranian managers, continue to lament the defensive style of football that Queiroz has instilled as well as highlight the fact that qualifying for the World Cup and getting to the final 8 at the Asian Cup is nothing that has not been achieved previously.

If one had to assess the work undertaken by Queiroz since he took over four years ago then it’s fair to say that he has navigated the obstacles as well as could have been expected. The Iranian Football Federation (IFF) and Sports Ministry have constantly been at odds during his reign. Contract disputes and public criticisms have not helped. In fact, a three-month tango between Queiroz and the two organisational bodies after the Brazil World Cup delayed a contract extension and prevented Team Melli from beginning their preparations for Australia earlier.

The IFF failed to back its chosen man to the effect that it had a passive role during all of Iran’s preparations under Queiroz. In fact, bafflingly, the national coach was responsible for arranging friendly games, training camps and even booking hotels and flights for the side.

Nevertheless, the team spirit he has instilled in the national side has been unprecedented. Never before has any manager gained the respect of all the players at his disposal as well as the unanimous backing of the other 77 million head coaches in the country. His approval rating is sky-high and the quarter-final elimination has done nothing to dampen that.

In fact, Iranians, who culturally live in the “what could have been”, are even more supportive of Queiroz’s reign due to the manner of the elimination. The victim or underdog persona is as big a tradition in Iran as anything else. Queiroz took over an ageing national side, which historically had the reputation for playing attacking football.

Being the pragmatic man that he is, Queiroz quickly realised that the players at his disposal were no longer capable of implementing that vision without hindering the side’s results and short-term goals (qualifying for the World Cup). During Iran’s final three World Cup Qualifiers, he undertook a 180-degree turn and created a robust, functional and counter-attacking side, which would go on to win its final three games and qualify for Brazil from what seemed a lost cause. That approach continues to work successfully.  

One of Quieroz’s major achievements was been the fast-track introduction of a number of youngsters into Team Melli during the Asian Cup, something that didn’t seem likely given recent history.  

After the World Cup, Iran only had one friendly match, against South Korea, until playing Iraq in another only one week before the Asian Cup kicked off. All four of Iran’s opponents had played between 13 and 15 matches in the same period. A major criticism of Queiroz during the World Cup was the presence of too many ageing players. The Portuguese had stayed loyal to most of the older members of that squad, as they had formed the backbone of the side for the last decade.

To illustrate this, during the Korea friendly match in November, Iran started with six players over the age of 30, as well as two others who would be over-30 by the time the next World Cup comes along in 2018. Due to a lack of preparation matches, as well as the IFF not having a long-term blueprint for the country’s football, Queiroz has always had to secure himself in the short-term far more than he would have liked. That has meant getting results, sometimes at the expense of the style of football or introduction of younger players such as Rubin Kazan’s Sardar Azmoun, who missed the cut for the World Cup due to inexperience.

However, ever the pragmatist, Queiroz undertook the second 180-degree turn of his tenure as he called up a number of uncapped players, including Naft Tehran’s highly rated trio Alireza Beiranvand, Vahid Amiri and Morteza Pouraliganji, for the Asian Cup. Having witnessed dips in the physical condition of a few of his older regulars, he was not afraid to make tough calls when he felt them in the interest of the side.

Morteza Pouraliganji was one of Iran's brightest players in Australia.

Queiroz fast-tracked the impressive Pouraliganji into making his debut seven days before the tournament, slotting  him in at centre-back, a position he had never played before, next to veteran Jalal Hosseini. The youngster had an outstanding tournament bookmarked by the high of scoring in extra-time against Iraq, followed by the low of conceding a penalty a few minutes later. Others to benefit from the injection of youth and energy into the side included right-back Vouria Ghafouri and creative midfielder Soroosh Rafeie.

The Asian Cup was probably the final farewell for a few of Iran’s stalwarts. This includes captain Javad Nekounam, 34, who was seen in tears at the end of the penalty shootout defeat to Iraq. He is probably the last of a generation of players that included Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi. Khosrow Heydari, on the wrong side of 30, as well as Masoud Shojaei, also 30, should both be coming to the end of their international careers too.

Jalal Hosseini, 32, will probably not take part at the next World Cup, whilst Andranik Teymourian, 31, should have a reduced role if he does continue. Similarly, Ashkan Dejagah, Mehrdad Pouladi, and Reza Ghoochannehjad, who lost his starting position to Azmoun during the tournament, will all be on the wrong side of 30 in Russia.

Replacing some of these players will be difficult. but it is a challenge that is sure to entice Queiroz – as the man himself stated in the aftermath of Iran’s elimination. On a brighter note Amiri, lively as  a left winger, the aforementioned Azmoun, Netherlands-based Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who had been expected to have a much more integral role for Team Melli, as well as Pouraliganji and Ghafouri, will all play far more central roles if Iran is to qualify for the World Cup.

Stability and public satisfaction are invaluable cornerstones of life in Iran. In fact, as long as the people are happy, regardless of results, a change may not be forthcoming. On arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport, the team was greeted by IFF President Ali Kaffashian who embraced Queiroz, in front of the gazing media, and thanked him for his work.

The public’s unanimous backing for Queiroz means that both the IFF and Sports Ministry will be hesitant to disturb that relationship. Subsequently, the Sports Minister came out stating that Iran’s dry run over the past four decades signals its current position in Asian football and expectations must be curbed. Interestingly, he did also say that he will not comment on Queiroz’s job performance until “experts have analysed the situation”.

Similarly, almost every member of the squad, including those who did not see any minute of action in Australia, have come out for the umpteenth time backing Queiroz and praising his management. Granted, some of those players may no longer be involved but it signifies a unified front in the side, something which Team Melli’s of the past lacked. The major obstacle to progressing though will be the IFF.

Will they be able to support Queiroz better than during the past four years? Will they be able to get the assistance of the Sports Ministry and invest a bit more in youth football in the country? The answers to those questions are likely no in the short-term. With that in mind, this cements Queiroz’s position as the best man to take Iran forward in the circumstances.

He must continue to use his international network and arrange friendly matches and training camps. However, he must also bring Iran out of its shell going forward and build upon the structure and defensive shape that he’s created too. During the early rounds of the World Cup qualifiers, expectations, even from the public, will be that Iran take the game to their opponents far more than they have during the last two years. 

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Six players who enhanced their profile at Asian Cup

Rob Brooks 3/02/2015
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Asian Cup stars (l-r): Massimo Luongo (Australia), Ali Mabkhout (UAE) and Son Heung-Min (South Korea).

The 2015 Asian Cup in Australia was a tournament filled with great goals, epic battles and record attendances. With so many vying for a spot on centre stage, here are six players who managed to enhance their reputation.

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ALI MABKHOUT (UAE)
Ali Mabkhout poses for pictures with his Golden Boot award after finishing as top scorer at the Asian Cup.

The Golden Boot winner impressed many throughout the continent with his finishing ability, particularly after his thumping strike to give UAE the lead over Japan in the quarter-finals. A penalty against Iraq was his tenth goal in as many games, and ultimately sealed the award – not to mention third place for his team.

Now linked to a Bundesliga move, it would not surprise to see Mabkhout take this goalscoring form to Europe in the near future.

TRENT SAINSBURY (Australia)
Trent Sainsbury was a fulcrum in the Socceroo defence throughout the Asian Cup.

Coming into the 2015 Asian Cup, Australia’s defence was something of a rabble. Constant injury woes for Curtis Good, Rhys Williams and Chris Herd had not helped, but heroes emerged in the shape of Sainsbury and Matthew Spiranovic.

Not only did Sainsbury open his international goalscoring account against UAE in the semi-final, his cool head and willingness to cover Ivan Franjic at right-back surely cemented the 23-year-old’s spot in Socceroo squads for the foreseeable future.

DHURGHAM ISMAIL (Iraq)
Dhurgham Ismail proved he is destined for bigger things after a number of impressive performances in Australia.

The Iraqi left-back was one of the finds of the tournament, keeping fellow starlet Ali Adnan out of the starting line-up and standing out in every game.

As able in attack as he is in defence, the Al Shorta man is destined for bigger things. If there were any doubts about his ability to handle the big stage, they were duly put to rest as the 20-year-old stepped up to slot home an extra-time penalty in the quarter-final win over rivals Iran.

OMAR ABDULRAHMAN (UAE)
Omar Abdulrahman controls the ball during the Asian Cup game against Qatar.

Already well known throughout Asia, Omar dazzled crowds in Australia, becoming a fans’ favourite wherever he went. Blessed with sublime footwork and an intelligent passing game, the 23-year-old was one of the tournament highlights for UAE supporters and neutrals alike.

Of course, talk of European clubs circling around the playmaker abound and if he is able to balance his rare talent with some discipline, he could well take the UAE national team to the 2018 World Cup.

Always a joy to watch, there will be plenty more eyes on Omar after his Asian Cup display.

SON HEUNG-MIN (South Korea)
Son Heung-Min celebrates after scoring a goal during the Asian Cup final against Australia.

Step aside Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, this man must now be considered the best player in Asia. Having played in the Champions League and Bundesliga at Bayer Leverkusen, Son transferred this form onto the international stage while in Australia.

His injury-time equaliser in the final was equal parts graft and skill, demonstrating his ability to produce a moment of magic when it matters most.

The only shame was that Son was hit with a virus in the early stages of the tournament. How dangerous he can become with proper preparation is anyone’s guess.

MASSIMO LUONGO (Australia)
Massimo Luongo waves to the crowd as he walks to the stage to receive the most valuable player award at the Asian Cup.

It is quite remarkable to think that in a tournament involving stars from across the world’s biggest leagues, the Asian Cup MVP plays his club football at Swindon Town. And the third-tier English club will be as delighted with his recent form as Australian fans, with his summer price tag sky-rocketing to a reported Dh8.3 million (€2m).

Few in his home country had even heard of Luongo a few months ago, but after his strike to open the scoring in the final, the 22-year-old’s name will be forever etched in the history books.

Where his Asian Cup form takes him is now a great point of interest, with Italy a reported destination of choice. Of mixed Italian/Indonesian heritage, Luongo is being likened to his compatriot Mark Bresciano, who forged a strong career in the Serie A before settling in at Al-Gharafa.

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Sport360's Asian Cup 2015 Awards

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Hosts Australia won the 2015 Asian Cup but there were plenty of other thrills and spills along the way.

The 2015 Asian Cup is over and a good time was had by all, well, almost all. Sport360 were there taking you through all the action in January and it’s now time to dish out the awards and present the plaques.

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Best game: Iraq 3-3 Iran (7-6 on pens)

This is easy. Really easy. The game was the kind of classic that every tournament needs, though doesn’t always get. There was everything – crazy red cards, great goals, fightbacks, more fightbacks, and then an epic extra time. If that wasn’t enough, the penalty shootout was unforgettable in its own right with Younis Mahmoud, that old fox, pulling out a Panenka when he had to score to keep his team alive (he had missed with his last two penalties too – one of which had been a Panenka) and that was that.

Best goal: Sardar Azmoun for Iran vs Qatar

The ‘Iranian Messi’ tag may be a little misleading but this 20 year-old striker has been exciting fans in his homeland for some time but against Qatar, he brought a whole continent to his feet and even those back in Doha could surely not fail to agree. With his back to goal at the edge of the area, the 20 year-old received the ball, produced the most divine turn seen on a football pitch since Dennis Bergkamp did his thing in Newcastle, and produced a fine finish. Simply exquisite.

Best Haircut: Omar Abdulrahman

Server Djeparov is always good value in the haircut stakes whether sporting a mullet, mohican or some old Greco-Roman classic style as he did in Australia but you literally can’t look past the UAE playmaker. His hairstyle may remind of David Luiz but the Brazilian defender wishes he has half the talent of the Al Ain icon. The hair just means you notice ‘Amoori’ a few seconds sooner than you otherwise would.

Omar Abdulrahman: Same haircut but twice the talent of David Luiz.

Best story: China’s help from a ball boy!

China arrived without much fanfare but performed well and well above expectations by winning all three group games to earn a quarterfinal with the hosts that proved to be a little too much. Yet by that time, Alain Perrin’s men had a special place in Aussie hearts thanks to goalkeeper Wang Dalei. Facing a first game penalty against Saudi Arabia, Wang asked Stephan White, a ballboy behind the goal, which way he should dive. White said left, Wang went left and the rest is history. The 12 year-old became a lucky mascot for the team and a mini-celebrity in China.

Best fans: Iran

This is a tough one. South Korean supporters never stopped singing with Iraq and Palestinian followers doing their teams proud too. But it has to be Iran. Followers of Team Melli made some serious noise and brought some serious colour to the stadiums they appeared in. They came in numbers and they left with admiration and respect.

Best player: Omar Abdulrahman

UAE’s star man returns to the stage for a second prize. Prior to the tournament there was no doubt as to whether the Al Ain mischief-maker could be the best in Australia. And so he proved. At times, he was mesmerising: producing mouth-watering assists here, defensive-splitting passes there and little turns and tricks everywhere else. Asia has a star that can make the whole world sit up.

Saddest moment: Cha Du-Ri’s departure

The South Korea right-back, the team’s last connection to the famed 2002 World Cup semifinalists, was immense in the tournament, where his exhilarating runs became a regular feature. He couldn’t quite lift his team to top spot but he steps down with his reputation never higher.

Best/worse referee blunder: Ben Williams

The Australian changed the quarterfinal between Iran and Iraq as with Iran a goal to the good, he somehow decided to show Mehrdad Pooladi a second yellow card, after seemingly forgetting that he had already booked him. Fellow Aussies with the same name on Twitter and Facebook suddenly found themselves with a lot more followers, friend requests and abuse. Carlos Querioz had complained about him during the group stage but it was nothing to how Iran’s Portuguese boss felt after this Canberra clash.

Best feel-good moment: Palestine’s first goal.

Apart from FIFA, boss Sepp Blatter getting roundly booed in the final in Sydney, Palestine’s goal was a real highlight. Appearing in their first ever tournament, Palestine were never going to avoid being patronised at least a little. ‘Happy just to be here’ was a constant refrain for the West Asians. An opening game clash with Japan was a little cruel and ended 4-0 but to be losing 5-0 to Jordan in the second game was not in the script. But then up popped Jaka Ihbeisheh to score his team’s first, and to date, only, goal at the Asian Cup. A 5-1 loss, but the whole stadium in Melbourne was on its feet.

Bitterest/Sweetest Moment: Kruse’s cruel blow

Australia’s Robbie Kruse had a fine tournament yet a serious Achilles heel injury sustained in the final means that he will likely be out of action for some time. The sight of the Bayer Leverkusen man on crutches as he received his winners’ medal shows that football can be a capricious mistress.

Biggest shock: UAE eliminating the reigning champions

In truth, while the tournament had plenty, it did lack a little in the shock stakes. Pretty much the teams you expected to get through the group stage did. China may be able to be classed as a surprise but even if this is the case, it was not a big one. So United Arab Emirates taking the game to Japan early and then frustrating the Samurai Blue after that to win via a penalty shootout was as big a shock as we got.

Best with the media: Mahdi Ali

South Korea’s Uli Steilike impressed with his honesty and answers but there was a sense with UAE coach Ali that he was really enjoying himself in his dealings with the media. Such events can be dull but Ali never stopped talking, smiling and laughing and won over the international press with his bright personality.

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