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Iran’s World Cup hopes fading amid botched sacking and squad acrimony

by: fifa2022newsnet


“Azmoun and Taremi get Iranians dreaming,” was the headline for an article on Fifa’s website after “Team Melli” were drawn to face England in their first match of the 2022 World Cup. Just a few months on and with the team’s star strikers at loggerheads over the future of coach, Dragan Skocic, however, it’s not exactly been the preparation Iran supporters had hoped for as the squad attempt to make history by progressing past the group stage in Qatar.

Six days after being dismissed amid reports that the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) wanted to appoint a homegrown coach, the Croat was controversially reinstated last weekend on a technicality because the federation realised it didn’t have the authority to dismiss him until it holds elections for a new president at the end of next month.

The volte-face was welcomed by Sardar Azmoun, the Bayer Leverkusen forward who retired from international football at the age of 23 in 2018 after facing heavy criticism from supporters, only to return a few months later.

“We are members of the national team of Islamic Republic of Iran,” he wrote on Instagram. “We thank Iran for the efforts and support of the government officials in the direction of all-round support for the national team. We announce that in the current situation, we will work together with the technical staff to make the hearts of the Iranian people happy in the Qatar World Cup, and trust us and the national team in this critical and short period. The World Cup should be fully supported. @teammellifootball We, the players, ask you not to change anything, let’s leave everything for after the World Cup.”

Iran players Mehdi Taremi and Alireza Jahanbakhsh celebrate qualification for the Qatar World Cup.
Mehdi Taremi (left) and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, two of the senior players who came out publicly against Azmoun’s social-media post. Photograph: Mohammad Farnood/Sipa/Shutterstock

A few hours later, Mehdi Taremi – the Porto striker who scored a brilliant overhead kick against Chelsea that was voted Champions League goal of the season in 2021 – responded with an angry message that said Azmoun had spoken out “without consent” and “against our wishes”.

“It is disrespectful to the national team to issue statements in the name of the national team based on the personal interests of some players and causing the team to be divided,” he wrote. “Denying the current difficult situation that the national team is facing only increases the mountain of our problems.”

Taremi’s message was shared and liked by the captain, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, the former Brighton forward who plays for Feyenoord, and several other senior players. Taremi, Jahanbakhsh, and the AEK Athens duo Ehsan Hajsafi and Karim Ansarifard had been among a group of senior players who met the Iranian sports minister during their training camp in Qatar last month to demand that Skocic be removed from his post.

Iran’s manager Dragan Skocic
Iran’s Croat manager Dragan Skocic, who was sacked and then reinstated. Photograph: Getty Images

“They would never have dared to do something like that to Carlos Queiroz,” says Shaygan Banisaeid, a coach for Arsenal’s Football in the Community scheme who came to England from Iran in 2019, referencing the national team’s former coach. “After that, the team went into two groups. One led by Azmoun, with the younger players who have been given their chance by Skocic and are happy with him. Then there are the more experienced players with European experience who want to make a change. Unity used to be one of the team’s biggest strengths but we don’t have that any more.”

Elections for president take place on 30 August and Skocic’s position is expected to come under more pressure before the next training camp in September. Meanwhile, Ole Gunnar Solsjkær has been among those linked to the post along with Ali Daei, the former striker who saw Cristiano Ronaldo take his all-time international goalscoring record last year, even though Daei has not managed for three years and has said he is not interested in taking over.

Queiroz is Iran’s longest-serving manager after leading them to creditable World Cup campaigns in Russia, where they only just missed out on the last 16 after drawing with his native Portugal, and Brazil. He is available having left his post with Egypt despite leading them to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations in February, although many feel nationality could count against Sir Alex Ferguson’s former assistant.

“This is the opinion that some people have,” says Banisaeid. “They believe that the Iranian government wants to play at the World Cup against its political opponents England and USA with an Iranian coach so they can show that we are a proud nation fighting against our big rivals with our own people.”

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Skocic was appointed in early February 2020 to replace the former Belgium manager Marc Wilmots and has won 15 of his 18 matches. Yet Iran managed only a draw and a defeat against South Korea in qualifying despite topping their group and lost to Algeria’s second-string in June. The cancellation of a friendly against Canada after that country’s government decided that “the untenable geopolitical situation of hosting Iran [had become] significantly divisive” has left the team significantly short of match practice.

“It’s a big dilemma: can they continue with Dragan Skoic if he isn’t going to be able to unite the players? asks Banisaeid, who has also coached at Fulham and Middlesbrough. “This will be our third World Cup in a row and there was lots of optimism when we saw the draw that this could be a good chance to get through the group. Even though some people may have underestimated the USA and Wales, everyone thought we could do something in Qatar. But now everyone is so disappointed and there is not much hope among the public. It’s heartbreaking for the nation.”

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