There’s not always a clear correlation between success at youth level and a blossoming of talent that emerges for the senior team but if there is then Asia’s strongest nation, Iran, could be set for a prolonged period of dominance as their U17 side is on the verge of creating history at the ongoing FIFA U17 World Cup in India.
Since the tournament switched to a 24-nation event in 2007, no Asian country has reached the semifinals and only three have even made the quarters so this young Iranian side is already at fairly giddy heights in the current edition as they stand alone amongst the five AFC entrants in having progressed through to the final eight.
They’ve also played in quite a remarkable manner where the glut of goals that have been scored don’t tell even half of the story for a team that’s been outplayed in terms of possession in every single match to date despite scoring no fewer than a dozen times and only having conceded twice.
On paper at least, it appears that they breezed through the group stage with a 3-1 defeat of Guinea, a headline catching 4-0 victory against Germany and then a 3-0 win over Costa Rica but in each of those matches there were long periods where they were well and truly on the back foot.
They topped all that in the Round of 16 though by then knocking off a nation in Mexico that has reached at least the final four in the past three World Cups and they’ve gone from being something of a tournament dark horse pre-competition to now being rated as a genuine chance to topple the reigning European champions, Spain, when they clash in Kochi on Sunday evening.
While casual observers may consider the success a result of a brilliant creative side that couldn’t be further from the truth – as unusual as that sounds given the sheer number of goals that they’ve plundered – but rather this is a generation of talent where the most likely players to have further success are those in the deeper lying and central defensive positions.
— FIFA U-17 World Cup (@FIFAU17Guwahati) October 21, 2017
Sure there have been a couple of very strong contributors in the advanced areas with the livewire right winger Younes Delfi one of the most impressive players at the tournament and the physical striker Allahyar Sayyad a dangerous presence but the team has scored more than half of their goals from set-piece situations, including no fewer than four penalties. They’ve also had to make do with a vastly inferior share of possession throughout the tournament with 40% against Guinea, 43% in the Germany clash, 48% when they faced Costa Rica and barely 35% in the 2-1 win in the Round of 16 against Mexico.
As can be deduced from those numbers not only has the nation been clinical in taking their chances but they’ve also been very effective in managing to negate the attacking threats posed by other nations. Not that it sounds particularly alluring but for me without question the two stars of the team have been their brilliant central defensive pairing of Amir Esmaeilzadeh and especially Taha Shariati who have remained composed throughout and acted as the chief organisers for a side that’s limited some powerful attacking opponents.
Playing in a fairly traditional 4-4-2 with wide wingers and two mobile central strikers (although they did switch to five at the back against Mexico), it’s been that pair at the back that have really caught the eye as they have kept the side superbly organised and limited the number of saves that keeper Ali Gholamzadeh has had to make.
More than just controlling and ensuring that the team’s shape is maintained though they’ve also been extremely impressive in their individual defensive work and also – unusually – have been key cogs in the team’s attack with Esmaeilzadeh taking the bulk of the team’s free-kicks and long throws while Shariati has taken a penalty and not been shy to push into midfield where his silky ball playing qualities have been on full display.
Aside from the lively Delfi, they may not dazzle going forward but they are a wonderful example of a hard working, superbly disciplined and organised team thatis step by step upsetting nations with greater pedigree and resources.
There’s scant attention paid throughout Asia to youth football when it doesn’t involve each nation’s own age group teams but once again the message should go out to all the neutrals across the continent to make sure they catch the quarter-final clash between Iran and Spain as this young Team Melli outfit contains plenty of names that could become household ones across the continent and beyond for years to come.