IRAN RETURNS TO THE 1998 WORLD CUP GAMES
By: MAHSHID MOHAJER, IPS Sports Correspondent
Iran returns to the World Cup this year ĺ their second appearance after a 20-year absence from the games ĺ with their highest finish having been the first round in 1978. This despite numerous obstacles the Iranian soccer players have faced in recent times, primarily as a result of influences upon the team from the decision-makers within government. The resulting impact upon the Iranian soccer team has reduced their level of play and will undoubtedly take away from the quality of their game.
Throughout its history, never has Iran had such talented, and one could easily say "brilliant", soccer players. While the list of star players is lengthy, forward Ali Daei, and midfielders Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi, tops the list; all play in the German Football League.
Regardless of talent, the changing of three head coaches in a relatively short period of time is not perceived as positive. Many now speculate on the effect of these changes on the teamís performance in the World Cup games. Take Iranís head coach, Valdir Viera of Brazil, as a case in point. Historically, Brazilian soccer has been offense-oriented and known for its forwards. Therein lies Iranís weakness: Defense.
Of the 32 teams to qualify for France, Iran was the last and nearly missed its opportunity to play in the World Cup games. In Iranís second qualifying play-off match with Australia, the team scored twice in the final 15 minutes of play, earning an 11-hour berth in the finals. That near miss resulted in Vieraís replacement by Tomislav Ivic of Croatia in January. Ivic failed to establish a friendly relationship with the Iranian team and never appeared eager to do so. In general, his demeanor towards Iranians was best described as indifferent. When questioned by foreign journalists, he appeared eager and enthusiastic, yet questions from Iranian reporters were often ignored and their questions frequently went unanswered.
The question that many asked is why, at this all-important juncture, would a coach with these characteristics be chosen to lead the Iranian team?
In a friendly match between Hungary and Iran, held in Iran before Iranian spectators, the Iranian team lost 2-0. Never before was the weakness in Iranís defense so clearly exposed. Frustrated Iranian fans, in an open display of disgust against the coaching of Tomislav Ivic and the teamís performance, shouted former coach Vieraís name in mock cheer. Assistant coach Ghassempour, a well-known player of past Iranian teams, resigned in protest.
Ivicís tenure with the Iranian team was short: He was shown the door in May after the Italian club team AS Roma beat the Iranians 7-1. In the end, authorities turned to Jalal Talebi, a well-known past Iranian team player with a good reputation.
All of these changes have taken their toll on the Iranian team. Notably, few realistically expected Iran to defeat the European and South American football superpowers in the World Cup ĺ no Asian team currently could do so, for that matter. However, with a little attention, care and intelligent decision-making, Iran could have been a stronger, more organized team. Such moves would have maximized the effectiveness of Iranís key players: Those who play in the German league. One thing is certain: All of these head coach changes did not work in Iranís favor.
Anticipation continues to build for what many perceive as the most exciting match-up of the World Cup: The United States versus Iran. Investment in the American team continues unabated by the U.S. in an effort to better the team. Not only is this game of significant importance to both teams in terms of advancement to the second round, it is more than a sporting event. The political undertones are lively; it is an event the whole world is eagerly awaiting. The American coach, Steve Sampson, rightly called it "the mother of all football games" in one of his most recent interviews. Even though this is a relatively new sport in the United States, its popularity is on the upswing. Never have U.S. football teams been as strong as the current team.
The Iranian regime has tight control over Iranian football players. Orders issued from the Iranian government to the hotel lodging the Iranian team stipulate that there would be no contact between female hotel employees and the Iranian team; all females hotel employees would be laid off and a prohibition of alcoholic beverages would be in effect during the teamís residence.
The absurdity of the request was enhanced by the fact that the French accommodated it. In Iran, the authorities failed to stop female soccer fans from entering the stadium to welcome the Iranian team upon their return from Australia, despite numerous warnings banning women from the stadium. Iranian women literally knocked down the gates to the Azadi Stadium and rushed in to join their male compatriots to cheer and welcome the Iranian team back to their homeland. Astonished and clearly overwhelmed Iranian authorities could only stand back and watch. Undoubtedly, these and other restrictions placed upon the Iranian players have had an impact on the psyche and the motivation of the team.