Asia Angle: Can Iran finally fire in the Champions League?

John Duerden 16/02/2017
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Persepolis hope to end Iran's continental drought.

Iran’s national team is riding high. Team Melli has been Asia’s number one –according to FIFA –for four years, is on course for a second successive World Cup for the first time in its history and is packed full of players active in the Europe’s big leagues.

On the continental club scene, though, the country’s record is not what it should be and it would be fitting if one of Esteghlal or Persepolis could change all that in the 2017 Asian Champions League, which kicks off Monday.

Since the tournament started in 2003, Iran has sent two teams to the final. The first was Sepahan in 2007, with the team from Isfahan losing to Urawa Reds of Japan.

Three years later. Zob Ahan were defeated by South Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma. Since then, there has been little to write back to Tehran about.

Maybe it will be a club from the capital this time. The provincial teams have plenty of talent but lack the stature of Persepolis and Esteghlal.

The two rivals stare across Tehran at each other and come together for fiercely-contested derbies. Crowds that can reach 100,000 pack into the Azadi Stadium, with the whole Iranian diaspora seemingly divided into blue (Esteghlal) or red (Persepolis) camps.

Yet the two giants are not as powerful at home as they once were. Persepolis last won the title in 2008 with a goal in the last minute of the final game of the season. Esteghlal – who were a continental winner back in the old format in 1970 and 1991 – has been a little more successful with two titles since then (2008-09 and 2012-13) but the last three champions have been Esteghlal Khuzestan, Sepahan and Foolad.

This season is looking much better, however. Persepolis are top of the table, six points clear of Tractor Sazi, while Esteghlal are third, 10 points behind their rivals. It would have been a lot more if Esteghlal had not triumphed 3-2 last Sunday in a thrilling derby.

If Persepolis had held on to an early lead, they would have been nine points clear at the top with just eight games remaining and perhaps able to give full attention to Asia.

As you would expect, both find themselves in tricky groups. So far this season both are in pretty good domestic form as the Asian Champions League gets ready to kick off and both are hoping to mount a genuine challenge.

Esteghlal did reach the last four back in 2013, only to lose to FC Seoul, and they begin their latest attempt with a tricky away trip to 2015 finalists Al Ahli. The Dubai team lost to Guangzhou Evergrande two years ago and are keen to once again go far in the tournament despite their own domestic woes. 

Then comes a home game with Al Taawoun, a Saudi Arabian club making a first ever appearance in the continental competition.

It is fair to say that three points will be crucial although the fact diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia mean their games must be played in a neutral country – in this case Oman – does complicate matters.

The deal-breakers could be the back-to-back games with Lokomotiv Tashkent. The Uzbeks are fast improving after a first appearance in the group stage in 2015 was followed by making the quarter-finals last year and beating Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia before a narrow loss to eventual finalists Al Ain.

Although Persepolis look set to claim a record-extending 10th domestic title, they do have issues. Coach Branko Ivankovic is currently embroiled in a row with national team boss Carlos Queiroz, with the feud between the two simmering for some time. 

Queiroz believes that Ivankovic, who took Iran to the 2006 World Cup, wants his job and is trying to destabilise the national team, while Ivankovic took issue with Queiroz calling seven Persepolis players to a Dubai training camp in January. After the Croatian complained, the former Real Madrid coach sent them back early. 

Persepolis have a very tough group. It starts with a home game against Saudi heavyweights Al Hilal, another continental giant desperate for continental glory.

It is followed a week later by a tough trip to Abu Dhabi to take on Al Wahda, coached by Javier Aguirre. Then comes back-to-back games with Qatari champions Al Rayyan.

If the Reds make it out of the group, they will certainly have shown that they have what it takes to go all the way and become West Asia’s representative in the final.

It is the same with Esteghlal and while it would be incredible for Iran, Asia and even the world, to see the semi-final played out between these Tehran rivals, it is unlikely that both will make it. 

One of them could certainly do it, however, and given Iran’s status in Asia – now is the time.

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STATESIDE: Republic revolts over Sacramento MLS bid

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There’s never a good time for a civil war. Yet the unrest which threatened to wreak havoc in Sacramento couldn’t have come at a worse juncture.

As MLS weighs up who’s next to join the expansion party, it was virtually nailed on that the Sacramento Republic would be first on the list.

Despite playing in the USL – effectively the third tier of US Soccer – crowds averaged a whopping 11,000 [the league average is 3,000] with near on every game a sell-out.

A city with just one other sporting team – the NBA’s Kings – have embraced soccer with the kind of emotion and unbridled interest which firmly ticks all the boxes at MLS HQ.

Yet, when the applications were delivered on deadline last week, an astonishing coup was revealed which could ultimately deter commissioner Don Garber from giving that all important thumbs-up later this year. There was no mention of the Republic in the documents handed over. No press release from what should be a proud as punch club owner Warren Smith. No fanfares. Absolutely nothing but utter disbelief and simmering fury.

Instead, majority owner Kevin Nagle launched a bid with the city’s name yet without the club identity which has made this possible in the first place.

In the blink of an eye, his Twitter handle was changed from @srfc_kevin to @KevinNagleMLS.

It wasn’t long before the hashtag ‘NoRepublicNoParty’ was created by furious fans. Since arriving on the scene in 2014, Nagle has been the financial brain while founder Smith concentrated on soccer matters. He has controlling interest, Nagle has the finances.

They were supposed to be on the same page and by Saturday night, the problems had been resolved.

Two days of talks between the feuding pair and Mayor Darrell Steinberg resulted in all three sharing a beverage and looking forward to the future as if nothing has happened. “It was very satisfying to see them both shake hands,” said Steinberg. “We are on the cusp of getting an MLS franchise.”

Earlier in the week however, storm clouds gathered. “We are just as surprised as our fans to hear reports of a bid that was submitted to MLS for Sacramento which does not reference Sacramento Republic FC,” read a statement when the news broke.

It was the wealthy pharmaceutical entrepreneur who pushed forward with plans for a new downtown $226m stadium and dealt with city officials.

Sources claim there has been friction in the boardroom for a while yet following the money trail reveals a great deal.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the stadium deal was created when the unpopular former mayor Kevin Johnson, the ex-NBA star turned politican whose St Hope charter school receives the largest donations from Nagle himself, was still in charge. Fallouts behind the scenes happen all the time.

Yet to publicly drop a bombshell like this is something else.

Sources claimed that with the January 31 deadline looming and the club refusing to give permission to use the name and logo, Nagle had no option but to lodge a bid for fear of missing out altogether.

There’s confusion as to who owns what but, as it stands, the application for MLS status is being funded by Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings which is controlled by Nagle.

San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York and former eBay chief Meg Whitman have arrived to add further financial muscle.

While Smith embodies everything which has been special about the Republic story, he will know that money always talks loudest.

And for Garber and his fellow MLS suits, there are no shortage of options. San Diego, who have just lost their NFL team, are pushing hard in the knowledge there won’t be two new franchises on the West Coast.

Phoenix, Cincinnati, Detroit, San Antonio, Tampa Bay, Charlotte, Indianapolis, St Louis, Nashville and Raleigh are also in the mix.

So now a tense waiting game begins with only four from 12 getting the nod. “This is a very strange situation but it’s all about the money,” a well placed MLS source told Sport360.

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INTERVIEW: Cahill on Melbourne City, the UAE & Davies

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Much-travelled: Cahill is enjoying being back home.

In the 20th season of an outstanding professional career, Tim Cahill has finally come home.

Australia’s groundbreaking record goal scorer – with 48 strikes in 94 internationals – had only been seen fleetingly in the flesh by supporters Down Under before August’s heralded recruitment by ambitious Melbourne City.

To witness the pugnacious forward, for whom unflinching belief took him to England as a teenager in 1997, red-eyed trips to the sofa in the early hours because of the punishing time difference were required as he featured in the FA Cup final with Millwall and buffeted Premier League defenders at Everton for the best part of a decade.

The last four years contained a globetrotting spell, taking in Major League Soccer’s New York Bulls plus the Chinese Super League with Shanghai Shenhua and Hangzhou Greentown. Yet a burning desire remained unquenched before City Football Group identified the now 37-year-old as the perfect talisman for their expansion into the burgeoning A-League.

Speaking to Sport360 from Melbourne, this key figure in an emerging nation’s transformation expressed his contentment with life at new employers – for whom a trademark header in November’s FFA Cup final has already secured a trophy.

“It has been an awesome transition from joining a club that was so far away from winning something, then within the first three months being able to deliver some important silverware,” says Cahill, who scored at the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

“It’s been great, interacting with the fans and also trying to build the culture and authenticity. I’m Australian and coming home. I’ve been away for a long time, playing in other leagues around the world.

“City Football Group’s clear vision of where they want to go and what they want to do, plus the way they want to implement their style of football and how they want to invest into Australian football, was really important to somebody like myself.”

Cahill is the last remaining member of a vanguard of outstanding players who carried the Socceroos to unheralded success, beginning with their run to a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to eventual champions Italy during World Cup 2006’s round-of-16. He was a dominant presence alongside the likes of inventive Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, mercurial Middlesbrough centre forward Mark Viduka and Parma tyro Mark Bresciano.

Since this historic group started hanging up their boots at the turn of the last decade, the 2015 Asian Cup has been added. Yet a failure to reproduce similarly-accomplished talents is hard to deny.

Bournemouth substitutes Adam Federici and Brad Smith were the only representatives from the Premier League in the last squad. No1 goalkeeper Mat Ryan has made just 10 La Liga appearances for Valencia in the past two seasons and recent changes to the foreigners rule in China look likely to severely impinge on game time for the likes of Jiangsu Suning centre-back Trent Sainsbury.

Cahill admits to finding the situation “a little bit worrying” when you scan coach Ange Postecoglou’s current squad, who are fighting against the UAE to make World Cup 2018.

He says: “I don’t think you’ll get many players like the last generation we had.

“The key thing was, our generation were all playing in the biggest leagues. Right now when you do your homework, there are not a lot of them playing in the Premier League, if any. That is a little bit worrying.”

The third-and-final round of the Asian process to make next year’s tournament in Russia soon whirrs back into life. The UAE will travel to Sydney for March 28’s test in search of both a result to keep alive waning hopes of a second-ever entry, plus thoughts of revenge after Cahill came off the bench in September to lash home the only goal.

“I am definitely expecting a big test,” he says. “One thing is they [the UAE] are a great football team, they have a lot of great players.

“The great thing is that the levels are rising throughout Asia. We are under no illusions the UAE will be tough to beat.”

The last two AFC Player of the Year gongs have been won by Al Ain playmaker Omar Abdulrahman and Al Ahli forward Ahmed Khalil, yet no trailblazing permanent move to Europe by an Emirati has occurred. Can Cahill understand why they haven’t followed in his footsteps?

“They have great lives and they get looked after by their country,” he says. “The thing is, their influence on the national team and the growth of the league there relies on those types of guys to stay around.

“It would have been great to see them take the leap and have a try at it. But I think they are pretty comfortable as they are.”

Cahill is best known for a spell on Merseyside from 2004-12, where an aggressive, powerful approach and acumen in the air earned respect. There, his famous goal celebration of punching the corner flag was seen 68 times in 278 fully-committed appearances.

A new batch is emerging under boss Ronald Koeman, headlined by 18-year-old centre midfielder Tom Davies.

For Cahill, another Everton starlet has also caught his eye.

He says: “I think Tom Davies is exceptional. He is really developing and the coach is starting to show more faith in him.

“I’d also like to see Kieran Dowell, who I think will be even bigger than Davies.”

Cahill is expected to move into a directing role for the third year of his contract, once World Cup 2018 is over. As one career approaches its end at City Football Group, another member’s is on the ascent.

Socceroos midfielder Aaron Mooy is excelling on loan from Manchester City at the Championship’s Huddersfield Town, and Cahill is sure he couldn’t be in safer hands.

“He is one of the shining stars,” he says. “I am so happy for him as he is learning his trade. The City Football Group have put him in a great club and are monitoring him to make sure his development is great.”

City Football Schools helps boys and girls improve their skills, make new friends and be part of a team. For more information, visit www.cityfootballschools.com.

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