By Sina Saemian
As the 2018 World Cup qualification gets into full flow in Asia, the number one ranked team in the continent will kick off their campaign in what is viewed as a relatively easy game against their North Eastern neighbours Turkmenistan. Carlos Queiroz and his men have had a rollercoaster ride in the past 12 months. With World Cup participation last summer, and then the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in January, it has been an eventful period for Team Melli.
As it has been discussed many times, the current Iran side divides opinions amongst the Middle Eastern nation’s football enthusiasts. Queiroz faced a torrid time in between the two major tournaments, with criticisms from the IFF (Iranian Football Federation) and Sports Ministry regarding his achievements, which they regarded to be a little exaggerated in the media. He handed in his resignation following quarrels with an IFF official, a long period of uncertainty clouded Iranian national team until he was convinced and reassured by the IFF president, Ali Kaffashian, that he has the full support of the government to continue his work with Iran, to the delight of the fans.
Although the bench and the coaching staff will have a very familiar look to it, there has been some changes on the pitch. Possibly the biggest change came in the shape of the retirement of veteran midfielder and captain Javad Nekounam, who decided to stand down from international duty after earning his 151st cap, a Team Melli record. Nekounam’s retirement is a symbol for the gradual transition which the current Iran side has and will go through. With many of the older players slowly being put aside, Iranian fans are beginning to see a different and younger look to their national team.
In preparation for their first match, Queiroz has added some new players to his 25 man squad. Prior to their friendly against Uzbekistan a few days ago, there had been 7 uncapped players. But during the 1-0 friendly win against the Uzbeks, 5 of those players made their debut, with the youngest of them being Atletico Madrid’s 18-year-old midfielder Saeid Ezatollahi. Of course, the core of the team consists of players well over their 30s, such as new captain Andranik Teymourian (32 years of age), Jalal Hosseini (33) and Masoud Shojaei (31), but there are positive signs that the national team is finally seeing some new blood.
On the other hand, the home side are 173rd in the FIFA ranking and are given no chance to provide an upset. But they were handed the biggest upset in the first matchday when they were beaten 1-0 by Guam. They come into this game on a poor run of form, having only played 5 games in the past 18 months, and their only win in that period coming against Laos in April 2014. Their current manager Amangylyç Koçumow has only been in charge for a few months and has already had a very tough start after their defeat to Guam, but his task come Tuesday will be clear: to keep the score down and if they’re lucky, get something out of the game.
Nasaf Qarshi striker Artur Geworkýan will be marked as the home side’s biggest threat as they hope for a miracle. Their chances will be boosted by the absence of some key players for Iran. Former Fulham and Wolfsburg winger Ashkan Dejagah and young NEC Nijmegen winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh are both missing the game due to injury as Queiroz will face a difficult choice of who to play on the right.
Although Turkmenistan have never been considered as a powerhouse in footballing terms, Iran have never won an official match against them, drawing 2 and losing 2. But as Queiroz and his men kick off their World Cup qualification in Dasoguz in north east of Turkmenistan, they will be expected to record a comfortable win and start their campaign brightly in the hope of a fifth World Cup appearance. But as the newly appointed vice-captain Ehsan Hajsafi said before the game, they will not be underestimating their opposition and will aim to get the 3 points first and foremost, before thinking about the scoreline.
You may be right in thinking this game is a given 3 points to Iran, but it is not the points that matter to the fans and experts. No, it is the manner of the win and the lineup. They would want to see a glimpse of the future with many younger players given a chance again following their impressive debuts against tougher opposition such as Uzbekistan. But as any boring level-headed manager would tell you, it is only the 3 points that matter and everything else is nothing more than a bonus