Iran are the continent’s highest-ranked team heading into the tournament, as well as this summer’s World Cup, and are three-time winners of the Asia Cup. Yet Team Melli have not tasted victory in more than 40 years.
They lifted the trophy an unprecedented three times in a row from 1968 to 1976 but haven’t done so since – their best efforts in the last 42 years four third-place finishes in 1980, 1988, 1996 and 2004.
Daei, 49, is not only Team Melli’s record goalscorer, netting an impressive 109 times in 149 appearances. He is international football’s all-time top scorer – with Hungary hero Ferenc Puskas second highest, but a huge 25 behind Daei on 84.
And he is keen for his country to assert their dominance as Asia’s No1 by winning a record-equaling fourth Asia Cup.
“This is our dream to shine again in the Asian Cup,” Daei, the former Bayern Munich striker who also had a spell with Al Shabab in the UAE, said at the 2019 Asian Cup draw in Dubai on Friday.
“We have a very good chance, it doesn’t matter what group it would be. We can qualify from the group stage whatever group we’re in.”
Iran, managed by former Real Madrid and Portugal tactician Carlos Queiroz were drawn in Group D at the ceremony, held at the Armani Hotel in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa, alongside 2007 champions Iraq, Vietnam, who qualified for the first time as a unified nation, and debutants Yemen.
That 1996 podium place for Iran came the last and only previous time the tournament was held in the Emirates, with Iran exiting at the semi-final stage to eventual champions Saudi Arabia – who beat host nation the UAE 4-2 in a penalty shootout.
And Daei says it is difficult to compare his era to this current crop, who are ranked 36th in FIFA’s world rankings.
“It’s not easy to compare. We were really unlucky in 1996,” said Daei.
He’s not wrong. Iran led the tournament in goals scored, with 14, the then 27-year-old bagging eight of them.
“We lost to Saudi Arabia in a penalty shootout, otherwise we deserved to be champions. We were better than any other team in the tournament.”
With Iran just a short flight away from the UAE and a large Iranian expat population calling the Emirates home, Daei hopes good support here will help Team Melli’s chances of success.
“Definitely it will have a big impact,” he added. “It will be a major driver and can bring a lot of passion and emotion to the atmosphere of the stadiums during the competition, to support the team.”
Before the Asian Cup, however, there is the small matter of this summer’s World Cup in Russia of course. Iran have been placed in the proverbial ‘Group of Death’ alongside European giants Spain and Portugal, as well as Morocco.
And despite the odds being stacked against them, Daei is optimistic.
“We have been drawn in the most difficult World Cup group. But anything can happen in football,” said the man who also briefly coached his country from 2008-09.
“The team has been working very well so far and we are hoping they can deliver some good results in the World Cup.
“The Asian Cup is eight or nine months away and the World Cup will be a preparation and part of the build-up to the Asian Cup.”
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