Iran, the perfect underdogs and soon-to-be favourites

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks back at Iran’s indomitable displays at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

It was supposed to be a foregone conclusion.

Group B of the 2018 FIFA World Cup was meant to be straightforward, with 2010 winners Spain and reigning European champions Portugal expected to comfortably finish in the top two and advance to the Round of 16.

As it turned out, Iran had other ideas and – until the last few seconds of the final round of Group B matches – it almost looked like they would pull off one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.

In the end, it was not to be even though Karim Ansarifard’s injury-time penalty earned them a 1-1 draw with the Portuguese, as they finished a solitary point behind the two European giants in third place.

Yet, despite missing out on the prize of a first-ever knockout round appearance at the World Cup, Team Melli will still head home as winners in their own right after some outstanding displays in Russia.

Despair for the Iranians after they gave it their all.

Plenty has been made about how the Iranians’ preparations were severely hampered by a variety of factors, and enough noise has been made about that.

Instead, the focus – for now at least – should be on how these players, guided by the venerable Carlos Queiroz, came so close to be, right now, preparing for a Round of 16 clash against either Uruguay or Russia.

It all started with their opening match against Morocco, slated as their best chance to pick up a point or three.

No, make that their only chance to pick up a point or three.

Morocco were arguably the better team but, in typical Queiroz fashion, Iran defended resolutely while also fashioning several chances of their own.

Befitting of their never-say-die attitude, a winner arrived in the 95th minute when Ehsan Hajsafi’s delectable freekick delivery was headed into his own net by Aziz Bouhaddouz.

Team Melli celebrating only their second win in the history of the World Cup.

So that was meant to be as good as it got.

Next up was a Spain side that was surely too good and would put a hatful of goals past the Iranians.

One. That is all La Furia Roja managed and a lucky one at that, as Diego Costa benefitted from some penalty-box pinball with Ramin Rezaeian and only realised he had scored after the ball nestled in the back of the net.

Now needing a goal, Team Melli instantly morphed from a organised, disciplined unit to one capable of cavalier, free-flowing attacking football.

Ezatolahi came so close to earning Iran a point against mighty Spain.

On numerous occasions, they gave David de Gea and his defence a real scare with Ansarifard and Mehdi Taremi spurning decent opportunities, while Saeid Ezatolahi became another victim of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) as his equaliser was chalked off – albeit correctly for offside.

Then came the final test against a team boasting the man many claim to be the “greatest of all time”.

Already, against Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo had netted a brilliant hat-trick. How were Morteza Pouraliganji and Majid Hosseini ever going to keep him at bay?

Pouraliganji has been one of the best centre-backs at Russia 2018.

Well, they did just that and frustrated him to a point that Ronaldo even caught Pouraliganji with a cheeky elbow to the face in the second half, picking up a booking for that indiscretion.

It was through a moment of brilliance from Ricardo Quaresma that the Iranians fell behind but, as was the case throughout the tournament, heroes continued to emerge with enhanced reputations.

How many can claim to have saved a penalty by Ronaldo?

Alireza Beiranvand, following a shaky opening 15 minutes, did brilliantly to save a penalty from Ronaldo, Omid Ebrahimi and Vahid Amiri were running the show in midfield, while Sardar Azmoun continued to emerge as the best target man of the tournament.

Ansarifard had his turn in injury-time and succeeded where Ronaldo failed, emphatically dispatching his spot-kick past Rui Patricio into the top corner to give his team a glimmer of hope.

In the end, that was all it proved to be as that hope was extinguished a few minutes later with referee Enrique Caceres’ final whistle.

Nonetheless, the conclusion of Iran’s campaign at the 2018 World Cup should not signal the end of a quite wonderful story, but merely the close of an important chapter ahead of a new, exciting one.

Having now matched it with two of the world’s best national sides, Iran will turn their attention to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, to be held in United Arab Emirates next January.

It has been 42 years since Team Melli last tasted continental success.

Having captured the imagination of many in their role of World Cup underdogs, it is time to see what they can deliver as Asian Cup favourites.

And, perhaps in the not too distant future, they will also be challenging for the big one.