Recent form dictates that Iran, the top ranked team in Asia, are one of the favourites to win the Asian Cup but despite their pedigree they have developed a reputation for underperforming in the region’s premier tournament.
The Middle East powerhouse have won the Cup three times, a feat matched by Saudi Arabia and bettered only by Japan, but the last of their three successive titles came in 1976.
Despite reaching the quarter-finals eight times since 1980, they have yet to book a return trip to the final.
Drawn in Group C for the tournament in Australia with Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Iran look set to reach the knockout phase again but are desperate to go further, pouring in money and looking further afield to strengthen ‘Team Melli’.
In 2011, Iran showed how serious they were when they hired former Real Madrid and Portugal national team manager Carlos Queiroz as their new coach.
Under his guidance, Iran again failed to flatter at the 2011 Asian Cup, crashing out in the quarter-finals, but the country’s officials kept faith with him, something of a rarity in Arab football.
Queiroz guided Iran to the World Cup in Brazil where they failed to win a match but drew with Nigeria before conceding a last minute goal to Lionel Messi in a 1-0 loss to Argentina.
Queiroz was given an extended contract and immediately set his sights on the Asian Cup.
Captained by veteran midfielder Javad Nekounam, Iran’s team boasts a potent mix of youth and experience and now a strong European flavour.
The 34-year-old Nekounam has been the backbone of Iran’s national team for more than decade, playing in three previous Asian Cups, and is approaching 150 caps.
A pioneer as a much as an icon, he is one of the first Iranians to play professional in Spain, and is among several current team members plying their trade in Europe.
Striker Reza Ghoochannejhad emigrated to the Netherlands when he was four and represented Holland at various youth levels before making his senior international debut for Iran in 2012, scoring his country’s only goal at the 2014 World Cup.
Attacking midfielder Ashkan Dejagah moved from Iran to Germany when he was one. He represented Germany at youth level before being picked for Iran in 2011.
Iran’s new focus on foreign-based coaches and players is only just starting to bear fruit but could pay off at the Asian Cup and help the team end their drought.
By Euro Sport
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