Iran almost had it.
In their second match of the 2014 World Cup, the Iranians played a near-perfect game against Lionel Messi’s Argentina. They ceded 70 percent of the possession, allowed five more shots on goal than they took themselves, yet their defense stymied the vaunted Argentinian attack and they probably got robbed of a 55th-minute penalty that would have given them a 1-0 lead and all the confidence in the world to hold for the next three quarters of an hour. Even a goalless draw would have been a fine result against the future runners up. Instead, Messi put 90 minutes of frustration behind him with a perfect lightning bolt that broke Iranian hearts and reminded everyone why he’s the G.O.A.T.
The 2014 World Cup obviously had the infamous 7-1 game, Argentina getting crushed by the boner lad’s goal in the final, and Chris Wondolowski missing a layup, but for me, Iran losing what would have been an iconic draw and maybe even a win against the sport’s greatest player in a World Cup game is as crushing as anything that happened in Brazil.
The squad going to Russia has a better chance at pulling off an equally historic upset. Carlos Queiroz’s team allowed just five goals in 18 World Cup qualification matches and never lost—an obviously impressive feat made even more notable since qualifying out of Asia is a slog that requires tons of travel and harshly punishes any early mistakes. Iran made none, and they’ll have to continue to do so to make the unlikely climb out of Group B. Spain and Portugal are obvious heavy hitters and even Morocco look feisty, so nothing will come easy for the Iranians.
Thankfully, Iran have Morocco first on the schedule. If they win that match, they’ll head into the dangerous end of the group buoyed with confidence. A draw against either of the big boys could send them through if they’re lucky, though Iran’s goal in Russia should be to spring a major upset and topple either the reigning European champions or the 2010 World Cup champs. They won’t be favored or even given much of a shot, but their defensive stability is real, and the team is stocked with young dudes who could break out and move to bigger European leagues. In the middle, there is the reliable vice captain and longtime Bundesliga veteran Ashkan Dejagah pulling the strings. Ahead of him stand a host of capable goal scorers (who we’ll get to shortly), including Reza Ghoochannejhad, who rules and will almost certainly pop up off the bench in the 60th minute of some game and come up big.
The forward line is the biggest difference between this Iran squad and the 2014 team that managed just a single goal all tournament, which they scored with just ten minutes left in their final game. However, putting one past Spain or Portugal is an order of magnitude more difficult than scoring on Sierra Leone or Syria. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, but not an impossible one.
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Mohammad Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Marítimo)
Defenders: Rouzbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny), Morteza Pouraliganji (Al-Sadd), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Padideh), Pejman Montazeri (Estaghlal), Majid Hosseini (Estaghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Oostende)
Midfielders: Mehdi Torabi (Saipa), Ehsan Hajsafi (Olympiacos), Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens), Omid Ebrahimi (Estaghlal), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Saman Ghoddos (Österunde), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest)
Forwards: Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen), Mehdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan), Ali Gholizadeh (Saipa)
Carlos Quieroz, who will leave after the tournament following an unhappy contract spat with Iranian soccer authorities.
Sardar Azmoun, Striker
If Iran are to spring an upset and get to the knockout rounds, it will be because young Sardar Azmoun takes them there. Simply put, the 23-year-old striker gets buckets. He has a eye-popping 23 goals in just 32 caps, which makes him the fifth highest goalscorer in Iran’s history already. Azmoun was dubbed the “Iranian Messi” at an early age, and thus far he’s lived up to those lofty expectations, even if the specifics of the Messi comp don’t really fit. The World Cup is, of course, a different beast, and his fans will expect him to produce against the very best in the world. Thankfully, he’s already shown confidence and composure in on big stages, as evinced by his cool-headed goal against Bayern Munich in the Champions League a few years ago—
—and this one he put up on Atlético Madrid:
This doesn’t look like a guy who’ll shrink from the moment.
Azmoun plays his club ball with Russian outfit Rubin Kazan, and he’ll have the luxury of taking on Spain in his home arena. Stylistically speaking, the comparison to Messi holds no water, though he’s said he’s more fond of the “Iranian Zlatan” moniker. At 6-foot-1, Azmoun is a big target man who harasses defenders and dominates them in the sky. He’s surprisingly comfortable dribbling the ball given his height, and he should lead the line for Team Melli with aplomb. Look for him to spring ahead and run straight at opposing defenders on the counterattack all tournament long. He’s been linked to Lazio, Arsenal, and assorted other big clubs, and a productive World Cup could see him graduate from Russia and into the big leagues.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Winger
When Alireza Jahanbakhsh scored a hat trick against Zwolle on the final matchday of the Eredivisie season, he became the first ever Asian player to lead a major European league in scoring. The Eredivisie ain’t La Liga or anything, but 21 goals is nothing to dismiss, and the hotshot winger is for real. Jahanbakhsh will anchor the right side of Iran’s attack, and he’ll use his tremendous speed to rip down the flank and serve up crosses for Azmoun and attack the goal with abandon. Look how much of a problem he is for backlines.
Like Azmoun, the 24-year-old Jahanbakhsh has been linked to major European clubs like Napoli, and his country has high expectations for him. Azmoun might be the better player, but Jahanbakhsh is probably more fun to watch. There are few types of player more exciting than the fearless winger who can play on the ball a bit and link up with runners in attack. Jahanbakhsh excels at zipping past left backs and creating dangerous attacking angles, and it’s the fact that he’s not only a goalscorer that makes him so dangerous. His passing numbers show that he’s more a Kevin de Bruyne type of player, though obviously not as prolific, and he will not hesitate to try to pull off big plays. If just a couple of them come off, Iran can be a real danger.
In a word: compact. Iran didn’t concede a goal in qualification until they had already booked their place in Russia, and if they’re going to win a game, they will almost certainly do so by a score of 1-0. Quieroz will line them up in a 4-2-3-1 with Saeid Ezatolahi and Eshan Hajsafi shielding the backline. I don’t see Iran caring too much about holding onto the ball, since they’re going to play Spain and Portugal and they’re not built as a possession team anyway. Their gameplan is simple, and they share it with most underdogs: play organized team defense and try to score off the break. They have the right sorts of players to do it, and an upset is a real possibility.
All times Eastern
June 15, 11 a.m.: Iran vs. Morocco, Saint Petersburg Stadium
June 20, 2 p.m.: Iran vs. Spain, Kazan Arena
June 25, 2 p.m.: Iran vs. Portugal, Mordovia Arena