1. The coach is well traveled
Carlos Queiroz has worked at the club level with Sporting CP, Manchester United and Real Madrid, and has coached both South Africa and Portugal at World Cups. He’s been in charge of Iran since April 2011, and has worked diligently to modernize the team in terms of both the squad itself and the tactics utilized.
2. Counter-attacking is the name of the game
Iran will likely employ a 4-2-3-1 formation that will favor defensive discipline over attacking flair. Iran’s fullbacks stay at home rather than venture forward, and the team willingly cedes possession in order to maintain defensive solidarity. Once the opponent becomes stretched and/or frustrated, the team look to hit on the break via its skill players—captain Javad Nekounam and Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah.
3. The keeper is half German
Iran went through multiple goalkeepers during qualification, but German-born Daniel Davari, of recently relegated Eintracht Braunschweig, should get the start. The 26-year-old goalkeeper has made three appearances for Team Melli, including his debut against Thailand last November. Although Davari’s experience in the Bundesliga will be invaluable, his club’s unsuccessful fight to avoid relegation seems to have hurt his confidence, as evidenced by a major blunder against Guinea that gifted the opposition an unexpected goal.
4. Jalal Hosseini is the defensive rock
The uncertainty regarding the team’s goalkeeper will necessitate a veteran leader to marshal a defense that will be going up against Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Nigeria. Jalal Hosseini is the man most suited to that task. The 32-year-old centerback has played his entire career in Iran (currently for the famed Persepolis), but has made 83 appearances for the national team and has featured in two Asian Games, winning a Bronze Medal at the 2006 tournament. He serves as Queiroz’s defensive general, and ensures that a well-drilled group remains diligent and hard-working.
5. Javad Nekuonam can hurt you with a long pass
Fulham winger Ashkan Dejagah is the team’s most recognizable figure: however, given that the vast majority of Iran’s infrequent attacking play starts with Javad Nekounam, he remains the team’s most important playmaker. The 33-year-old captain operates as one of the squad’s two holding midfielders, and directs play forward either by distributing into the channels to trigger a counterattack or by looking for a long ball (his specialty) to unlock transitioning defenses.
6. Goals are not this team’s specialty
Despite finishing top of Group A in AFC qualifying, Iran had fewer goals than both the second (Republic of Korea) and third (Uzbekistan) placed teams. Iran’s reliance on defensive structure tends to leave the lone striker (Charlton Athletic’s Reza Ghoochannejhad) isolated up top. Nevertheless, “Gucci” (as he is known to teammates) has been a prolific scorer for the team of late, netting 9 times in 11 games since 2013. The 26-year-old striker, who played for the Netherlands at the youth international levels, has struggled to settle in England, but will feature prominently for Iran if he can get the service and support he needs.
7. Preparation has not been ideal
A number of different factors, including the impoverished state of the Iranian FA and lingering political tensions, have hindered the national team’s ability to schedule meaningful friendlies. Indeed,Team Melli has managed only two friendlies (Guinea and Belarus) in the past 6 months. The team has instead had to rely on intense training sessions and matches against opponents like the Moroka Swallows, a mid-table South African Premier League team, to prepare for Brazil. The World Cup is the biggest stage on earth and, without the necessary match experience that its opponents in Group E already have, Iran could struggle to handle the considerable pressure.
8. Even Carlos Queiroz isn’t expecting much
Contrary to popular belief, the political situation in Iran is actually far more tenable than it was at the 2006 World Cup, when there were calls for the team to be expelled from the tournament due to statements made by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s political climate may be calmer nowadays, but its FA certainly is not. In addition to infrequent friendlies, Queiroz has had to handle a lack of physical and monetary resources, players not being released by clubs, erratic scheduling and poor planning across the board. Indeed, the situation was so dire that Quieroz himself noted, “With such arrangement and program failures, don’t expect much from Team Melli in Brazil. We will not make it to the next round because of the failure of the South Africa Camp.”
9. This team is diaspora-tastic
Whether it be because of the improved political situation or the international prestige of the manager, Team Melli has been able to attract players who otherwise might never have entertained the notion of playing for Iran. Players with German and Dutch eligibility have instead elected to play for the team with whom they have ancestral affiliations; this is especially the case when it comes to Steven Beitashour. The San Jose-native was called up by Jurgen Klinnsman for the USA’s friendly against Mexico in August 2012, but eventually committed to the country in which both of his parents were born. That at least some of the Iranian diaspora population has welcomed the opportunity to play for Iran is a sign that both the national team and the country are moving in a positive direction.
This will be Iran’s fourth appearance in the World Cup finals, with all three previous tournaments ending in the Group Stage. In fact, in nine World Cup matches Iran has managed just one win (against the United States in 1998) and two draws, so the expectations aren’t particularly high. Iran will most likely be fighting for third place, and the manager’s highly structured defensive plan will keep the team competitive in games that many will have expected it to lose handily.