John Duerden believes it is high time that Iran’s national team success is mirrored on the club scene, with the Asian giants yet to produce continental champions in the AFC Champions League era.
Iranian football is booming. The national team may have been placed in a tricky World Cup group with Spain, Portugal and Morocco but is the one Asian team that has a chance of surviving such a pot. Under Carlos Queiroz, Team Melli have been the best on the continent for some time and there is the potential to shock a few people in Russia this year.
There is a growing number of players in action in Europe and performing well. The likes of Karim Ansarifard, Reza Ghoochannejhad, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun have been playing well in leagues such as the Netherlands and Russia and the latter two at least should make the step to a bigger stage in the not too distant future. Others will follow.
At the club level, there is also cause for optimism. After a few years of inconsistent performances in the Iranian league, the twin Tehran titans Persepolis and Esteghlal are starting to find some of their old swagger and Iranian football needs these two to be strong. Persepolis won the title in dramatic fashion in 2008 but had to wait until 2017 to lift the trophy once more. The Reds have dominated the current season and with five games remaining are 15 points clear at the top.
The title could have been clinched on March 1 at the Tehran Derby but Esteghlal took the game 1-0, a rare setback for Persepolis this season. Back to back title wins will show that the Reds have truly returned. The fact that Esteghlal finished second last season and could do so again this is also encouraging.
What has been lacking is success in the Asian Champions League. The national team is going well and the same can be said of the overseas exports but for one of the continent’s powerhouses have struggled to make a mark in the biggest club competition is something that needs to be redressed.
Since the Champions League started, Iranian fans have had to watch as fans from rival countries have celebrated. There have been two wins for Saudi Arabia, three for Japan while South Korea has five to look back on.
Sepahan made the final in 2007 and Zob Ahan did the same in 2010 to face Urawa Reds of Japan and Korea’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma respectively. Neither really gave the impression that they felt they could win and the East Asian teams ran out fairly comfortable winners.
Maybe it will take Persepolis or Esteghlal to change the poor record. Neither has done much since the competition was introduced in 2003 though Esteghlal is a past winner of the old Asian Club Championship. The two teams have one semi-final appearance each. Esteghlal made it in 2013 but were well-beaten by FC Seoul. The best for Persepolis came last year and a loss to Al Hilal of Saudi Arabia in a clash of two Asian giants.
So far this season, so good. Persepolis under Branko Ivankovic and Esteghlal with Winfried Schaefer have two coaches who know the Asian scene pretty well. At the halfway point of the group stage, both top their groups and there is nothing for them to fear at all in the western half of the draw.
Persepolis should be able to open some daylight between them and third place with a visit to the hapless Al Wasl next week. Esteghlal will be looking forward to inviting Al Ain to Tehran.
The Iranians were looking good to take all three points at the home of the 2016 finalists on Tuesday, a win that would have put them five points clear after just three games. The Blues were outraged by two of the softest penalty decisions given against them that you will see. Al Ain missed the first and scored the second and the game ended 2-2. Fans of Esteghlal, and Iran in general, have been up in arms and understandably so.
It adds to a feeling of persecution in Iran. The federation and clubs are already unhappy at not being able to play Saudi teams on a home and away basis. Riyadh and Tehran cut diplomatic ties in January 2016 and meetings take place in third countries. Especially given that Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates were told by the Asian Football Confederation in January that they had to play games with Qatar home and away, despite the absence of any kind of relations there, Iran have been disappointed that they were told that they had to play their ‘home games’ in Oman.
This seems to be out of Iran’s control at the moment but what is not is a first Champions League title. With so much else going well, it is time for continental club success.