Iran’s government is more involved than most in football – clubs are owned directly or indirectly by the state – but it keeps a closer eye than usual on the beloved national team at times of public unrest.
After the famous World Cup playoff win over Australia in 1997 the players were told to take their time coming home lest their presence push nationwide celebrations into something else.
The 2009 ‘Green Movement’ that sprang up to demonstrate against what was seen as a rigged presidential election led to a number of players wearing green armbands in a vital qualifier in Seoul. Within hours their pictures were being held up on the streets thousands of miles to the west.
Protestors are back on Iran’s streets after the death of Mahsa Amini in custody after she was arrested by the morality police on 13 September for “unsuitable attire”. If unrest continues, then any success at the World Cup, which is eight weeks away, may be viewed as a double-edged sword by authorities; and, if the latest international matches are anything to go by, then Iran are going to Qatar to be competitive against England, the USA and Wales who all lost.
In the first game since Carlos Queiroz returned as head coach this month, Team Melli beat Uruguay 1-0 in Austria. Thanks to international isolation and sanctions, it is rare that Iran play such opposition in friendlies, but this only highlights that this is one of the country’s best results in years. It is all the more impressive as it comes after months of chaos, infighting and interference.
It started with being drawn with England and the USA. From Iran’s point of view there could not have been two bigger and more symbolic opponents.
These are two nations with deep involvement in the modern history of one of the world’s oldest civilisations and which are held responsible for the 1953 coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
They are two nations that are still seen as being behind many of the problems that the country, beset by sanctions internationally and unrest at home, is facing and two national teams that present formidable opposition for one that had never progressed from the group stage in five World Cup appearances.
After the draw, however, with the group rivals all having homegrown managers, there were whispers that Iran should, for such symbolic games, have an Iranian coach.
Yet it was a Croatian, Dragan Skocic who took over in February 2020 and led the team through qualification with 15 wins in 18 games. On 9 July Iran’s volleyball team defeated Serbia in the Men’s Nations League. The following day a social media account of Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, reposted an old entry with a new title saying it was good to have success with an Iranian coach.
While it was later denied that this was expressing any opinion about what should happen with Team Melli, on 11 July Skocic was fired even though it seemed there were not enough board members around to sign the official document confirming his release. Reaction to the decision was mixed and even those not enamoured of Skocic felt he had been treated poorly. Ali Daei was the frontrunner but quickly ruled himself out and other candidates did not set pulses racing.
Skocic was back in the job within a week but it was impossible to pretend that nothing had happened. The team was as split as public opinion. The striker Mehdi Taremi had an earlier falling out with the coach and led the contingent who wanted a change. It was even claimed that the Porto star and some teammates had met Iran’s minister of sports. Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun was the highest-profile backer of Skocic.
It was always going to be decided one way or the other at the end of August with the election of a new federation president. Mehdi Taj, who had been the president from 2016-19 and had worked with Queiroz, said openly he would consider bringing the former Real Madrid head coach back if he won.
Due to a lack of domestic options Queiroz was seen as the next best thing; available and cheap, high-profile, familiar with the players and the politics and more than capable of setting a team up to ensure there would be no World Cup embarrassments.
Skocic had earlier blamed “various interests” for trying to create tensions in the team but this time stayed quiet and focused on staying and securing his payout (sources have suggested that he allowed this to be set too low, making his dismissal fairly cheap). His supporters suggest there is some irony in a coach who successfully steered his team through qualification for the World Cup being replaced by one who failed with both Colombia and Egypt.
That will not bother Queiroz, a coach not averse to conflict and controversy. It was as if he had never left against Uruguay. Whatever the divisions in recent weeks, there did not seem to be a problem with team spirit and Iran worked hard to frustrate the South Americans, snatching a late win. Taremi’s goal was a fine finish to a flowing move.
There are bigger issues at play right now in this football-loving country but after months of chaos it could be that Team Melli have stumbled upon the right formula, even if it is a short-term one. At the very least Iran sent a message to the rest of Group B, not least to their first opponents, England.