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Published On: Thu, May 22nd, 2014

Iran daring 1974 possibilities at 2014 World Cup

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Once every four years, football fever reaches epidemic levels around the globe.

The magic of the World Cup leaves a lasting impression on each and every football fan.

For Iranian fans, Argentina 1978 was the first time their country was able to take the game to its heart.

Unfortunately for Iran, Team Melli (literally translated as “national team”) was placed in a tough group, with the Netherlands (the World Cup runner-up in 1974), a strong and talented Scotland side, and underdog Peru.

Iranian fans are an amazingly optimistic bunch, so plans were made for the knockout stages in advance, but it was not to be.

In the first match, Iran got a 3-0 thrashing as Rob Rensenbrink had a hat trick for the mesmerizing Oranje two came from the penalty spot.

A 1-1 draw with Scotland gave Iran renewed hope, but Teófilo Cubillas’ hat trick and the rest of the Peruvian side put an end to that, winning 4-1 to send Team Melli crashing.

In the aftermath of Argentina ‘78, Iran maintained their optimism about the team’s future.

When the number of World Cup participants was increased from 16 to 24, it seemed that Iran, as the dominant side in Asia, would benefit with a promising crop of young players.

Indeed, it all suggested that the 1982 tournament might be the place to showcase their skills. But in 1979, Iran went through major political upheaval, the eight-year conflict between Iraq and Iran began, and Iranian football went into an 18-year hibernation.

During that period, Team Melli gave its fans very little to cheer about. There were occasional bright performances in smaller regional tournaments, but the World Cup seemed a distant dream.

Then in the 1990s, thanks to a talented generation of footballers whose teamwork improved when they put on the national colours, Iranian football enjoyed an unexpected resurgence.

The team found its optimal blend of youth and experience in 1997, just as it was preparing for the qualifier for France 1998.

What followed was the most agonizing, frustrating, and nail-biting World Cup qualifying campaign in Iranian football history.

It opened on June 2, 1997 and Iran powered through their six opening-group matches, scoring 39 goals and conceding only three.

In the second round, Iran played 10 matches and fell just short of group winner Saudi Arabia, meaning Iran had to play Group B runner-up Japan on neutral ground.

(The winner of this single match would qualify for France; the loser would have to play in an AFC/OFC Intercontinental playoff.)

In Malaysia, Japan scored the opener, but Iran hit back with two before an equaliser and an extra-time goal saw the Blue Samurai advance.

Iran moved into a home-and-away match against Australia in the AFC/OFC Intercontinental playoff, and in front of 100,000 screaming fans in Tehran, came back from a one-goal deficit to seal a 1-1 draw.

The return leg, which Team Melli fans refer to as “The Melbourne Saga,” saw the superior Aussies take a 2-0 first-half lead that just as easily could have been 4-0.

Then, with 15 minutes to go, Iran somehow scored two goals in less than five minutes to tie the match and advance on away goals.

It had taken Team Melli 19 matches, thousands of miles and buckets of sweat to earn their ticket to France, and it was well-received back home.

Within minutes of the final whistle, thousands of Iranians young and old took to the streets of Tehran and started a celebration that lasted for hours.

For the finals, Iran was grouped with Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and a politically charged tie with the United States. Iran lost its first match against Yugoslavia 1-0, but defeated the U.S. 2-1 in the most publicized match of France 1998. That victory softened the blow of a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Germans as Iran finished third in the group and headed home.

Still, the side had shown what they were capable of and, although Iran failed to qualify for South Korea/Japan 2002, they were back for Germany 2006 to give the fans another glimpse of glory.

Sadly, once again, the final tournament proved too much to handle as Team Melli came back home with only one point after losing 3-1 to Mexico, 2-0 to Portugal and drawing 1-1 against Angola.

Failure to qualify for 2010’s event can be added to the list of recent disappointments, but the Iranian Football Federation (IRIFF) made an unprecedented move and acquired the services of an internationally known coach in Carlos Queiroz to get them to Brazil.

Despite all of the challenges presented to him, Queiroz guided the team through the qualifying rounds and reserved a spot in Brazil, where Team Melli is scheduled to meet Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Nigeria in Group F.

Now, the Iranian fans are once again dreaming of the possibilities. History suggests that qualification for the knockout rounds might be a little out of reach, but with a current squad including the likes of Fulham midfielder Ashkan Dejagah, Charlton’s Reza Ghoochannejhad and FC Rubin Kazan’s 19-year-old uncapped prodigy Sardar Azmoun riding high on confidence, it’s nice to think that anything is possible.

 

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