If you’re a regular reader here – firstly thank you – you may have noticed the global flavour of topics covered throughout recent history. If so, you’re certainly a sharper intellect than I. Having covered ground in England – itself extensively revisited – Germany, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, Brazil and, obviously, Egypt, of the 32 sides qualified for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia, on both domestic and international scenes in the past few months, it has finally come to my realisation that a promising precedent has been established. With 26 nations yet to cover, the task to explore each remaining territory is evidently impossible within our – admittedly liberal – weekly timeframe, but to at least provide context on some of this summer’s participants would prove heartily beneficial. As such, I have opted to immerse the site – not totally, given certain subjects may arise to arouse my curiosity in the extensive period between now and early June – in providing a platform, perhaps, to reveal some of the less prominent or recurrent inquiries and contexts of those who will partake in the globe’s most unifying sporting competition. The nations, their constituents, cultures, controversies, competitive undertones and ultimate aspirations; all will be explored in the observation of specific aspects of their footballing context, from players to clubs, divisions to tactics, governing bodies to overarching political circumstances.
This week, we go to Iran.
Particularly resonant, given the current internal political turmoil facing dominant establishments of power in the Islamic nation, the mere connotations of the nation’s sporting achievement may soon evoke inquiries into the preservation of prospects at this summer’s tournament. Rarely, however, have Team Melli (تیم ملی) – literally the national team – had their fortunes solely reliant on political stability before, and nor will they give much credence to its factor in future.
Perhaps this relative individuality offers a more insightful perception of Middle-Eastern geopolitical debate, and its common ramifications on football, as a perpetually dominant sporting outlet and regional commerce. Personally, I have always perceived Iran as a stable political environment, at least in relativity to its near neighbours Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and arguably Saudi Arabia – yet it cannot be any means responsible to disregard the countless human rights abuses footed at Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s near-on 29-year regime in suppressing opposition, ignoring extensive poverty and oppressing women, artists, writers and religious minorities. Public perception has regularly been defined as fundamental to the now-78-year-old Khamenei, and by reversing accusations of humanitarian suffrage on the West, and particularly America, the successor of 1979 Revolutionary icon Ruhollah Khomeini has exposed the true disparity and perpetual hypocrisy of post-WW2 capitalist politics, while managing to aptly balance the demands of political Principlists and Reformists within his system. For a non-hereditary totalitarian political establishment, and strongly Shia cultural exponent founded in revolutionary fervour, Iran’s stability has defiantly upset the rhetoric of the West over the past four decades.
Until now, at least. Institutionally opposed to both the US and Israel as global political powers, Iran’s stance invites the criticism of hard-line Republicans; exactly Donald Trump’s ilk. The public demonstrations against unemployment, economic inflation and corruption – a direct impact of US sanctions on oil exports – especially amongst young citizens, demonstrate disenfranchisement with a system that had exercised acute military influence in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, but evidently not to any extent that critically threatened the status of Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani or the ruling pragmatic-centrist Moderation and Development Party.
Underlining any cultural achievement in the Persian state, then, this social divide ensures that footballing talent will have to defy socio-economic relevance and exceed aspirations to an unprecedented extent to quell political opposition for even a matter of weeks. What better stage, perhaps, than the World Cup, a pinnacle that Team Melli have only reached four times prior, and the ultimate honour in what has now become the national sport, in the emergence of its economic power over traditional freestyle wrestling; a discipline in which the Iranians have won 43 of their 69 historic Olympic medals. Considering a chartered economic decline, however, that in 2013 first faced negative GDP growth, experienced a decline of 1.1 million BPD (barrels per day) of oil exports from 2011 to 2014 and a similar decay of 40% in the car industry between 2011 and 2013, alongside other significant economic scares, how has Iranian sport remained not merely competitive, but front running on a continental scale?
We may imagine, as observers from the politically and economically polarised West, that Carlos Queiroz, as national team manager, has had at his disposal a wide contingent of devoted and corralled talents centred in prestigious Western Europe divisions. Ashkan Dejagah, now the squad’s captain, is perhaps the only recognisable name to British audiences after his stint – albeit brief – at a relegation-bound Fulham between 2012 and 2014, with the fleeting spell notably featuring a stunning volley against Crystal Palace and the scalp of a Cottagers Player of the Season award on the route to Championship competition. Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Ehsan Hajsafi have been the subjects of high praise in some European quarters for their abilities, and have earned moves to AZ Alkmaar and Olympiacos, respectively, in recent seasons, while striker and national talisman Karim Ansarifard is also registered on the Greek champions’ books after prolific goalscoring records in the Persian Gulf Pro League, and former Charlton Athletic forward Reza Ghoochannejhad has similarly earned his employment at Heerenveen, but otherwise, existential celebrity is not prevalent in the outfit; much unlike many of the nations that will descend upon Russia in early June. Dispersed across only eight separate nations – Greece, Russia, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal, Qatar and Iran itself – the past 48 players, of a politically turbulent preceding twelve months, hail in all but 16 examples from Iran itself; including the free agents Dejagah and goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi as overseas, that is. These 16 far-flung individuals, however, demonstrate an unerring correlation of circumstance; boasting 506 international caps together, or 439 if discounting the two unattached entities. This contrasts to the 359 sum appearances of the remaining 32; 114 of which were accrued by 35-year-old centre-back Jalal Hosseini alone. Thus, average experiences appear mathematically valued at roughly 31 caps for those currently employed abroad – curtailed only by uncapped Marítimo ‘keeper Amir Abedzadeh – and just 11 or so for those focused on the Persian Gulf.
Admittedly, ten of these Iranian-based players have no prior appearances to their name, and have involvement restricted solely to a training camp in Tehran last November, prior to friendly triumphs attained against Panama and Venezuela in Graz and Nijmegen, respectively. To have granted them access to full international honours, regardless of actual in-game appearances, is an entirely admirable policy on the part of Queiroz, his coaching team and the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) itself, and is comparable only to healthy, successful environments that I can immediately recall. These include the English Rugby Union squad (currently in a squad of 35, training down in Brighton) and a revelation I only recognised while observing results from around the globe the other day; Icelandic, Finnish, Swedish and Danish national teams, while in action in the more agreeable environments of Indonesia and Abu Dhabi, sporting players selected exclusively from domestic divisions that obviously have winter breaks imposed upon them, in order to retain fitness, promote home-grown talent and cultivate invaluable international experience in these players for future endeavours, whether resulting inside or out of the international system. Nor, while on the topic, did a bias exist, quite notably, in these recognitions; not for 2016-17’s runaway champions Persepolis (just the three selections), nor the sides that ultimately finished nine and ten points, respectively, adrift in great Tehran-based rivals Esteghlal (five selections) and the culturally Azerbaijani Tabriz’s Tractor Sazi (one), with lesser outfits in Isfahan’s Sepahan and Zob Ahan – effectively the nation’s Sheffield United and Wednesday, steel rivals – Tehran’s Saipa, Ahvaz’s Foolad, and Abadan’s Sanat Naft Abadan all producing at least one worthy individual.
Possibly antiquated, nonetheless, in their domestic perspective, the Iranian establishment continue to run the Pro League like so many failed post-Soviet dissolution Balkan and Caucasus nations. As in these territories, where those who remained at the top of the footballing establishment had consolidated their positions there through intensely corrupt deviance, and scarcely conceived a regime change or had the capacity for an alternative view of club ownership, Iranian beliefs consist of the often-overt patronage of state industries in these clubs. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (Persepolis), Physical Education Organisation (Esteghlal), the Iran Tractor Manufacturing Company (Tractor Sazi, of course), the Foolad Khuzestan Company (Foolad), the Mobarakeh Steel Company (Sepahan) and its adversary, the Isfahan Steel Company (Zob Ahan) each constitute a pondering of the profitability of such a centralised operation, especially given the beleaguered Iranian economy’s unfavourable role in present political furore.
Not that Queiroz’s side appear adversely impacted, that is. Twelve victories, six draws, 36 goals scored and only five conceded from 18 qualifying matches, through two phases and a minimum of 46,532.74 air miles, on their route to 2018 qualification, and none of their exertions appeared to have truly challenged their capabilities. Granted, the quality of sides ranging from Turkmenistan to Oman, China to Qatar and Uzbekistan to surprise package Syria was questionable, but even when posed with a South Korean outfit that we may well observe ourselves here later this year, they eased to qualification with two matches to spare. There is little doubt Queiroz has tamed a potentially unruly beast, and prepared from it a steadfast, professional and incisive tactical exponent.
So often labelled with the manacles of a brief former employment as Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United assistant manager, Queiroz has finally shaken his derided public persona in this employment, to the fortune of both the adopted nation and the 64-year-old himself. Granted the faith to employ a fully Portuguese backroom team, in all positions other than team doctor and masseur, and instil principles that would ultimately prove mutually beneficial over what now amounts to a seven-year tenure, Queiroz has finally found his managerial niche. Revolutionising the methods which predecessors Afshin Ghotbi, a perpetual assistant before spending a single title-winning season at Persepolis in 2007-08, and national team goalscoring icon/Guinness World Record holder Ali Daei, employed in their inconsistent regimes, the Mozambique-born Portuguese has ushered in a new age for the sport in the region. Liberalising the selection policy to envelop the foreign-born talents that now dominate the squad – Dejagah the first ever overseas-nationalised Iranian captain, having moved to Berlin at the age of one, and Ghoochannejhad, a naturalised Dutchman, the only European citizen in the top ten historic goalscorers – has proved an invaluable concession, exploiting the global economic diaspora of Iranians to compete at the very pinnacle of continental competition with established regional powers Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Perhaps this was the final link required in a cohesive and ambitious squad. Iran, after all, retains a status earned predominantly in the 1990s as the fourth most proficient nation and domestic force in Asian Champions League performances; boasting three victories and four final defeats to their name, from the exploits of Esteghlal (1970 and 1990-91 titles, 1991-92 and 1998-99 defeats), the dissolved former military side PAS Tehran (a championship in1992-92), Sepahan and Zob Ahan (2006-07 and 2009-10 final losses), trailing only behind their Koreans (11 titles, six runners-up finishes), Japanese (six wins, three falls at the last) and Saudi Arabian (four victories, nine times ousted) compatriots in that respect. Threatened, however, by the emergence of state-funded Chinese riches and the inclusion of Australian entities as pragmatic Asian participants, Tehran and Isfahan’s institutions may gradually, and quite rationally, cede ground given the prestige offered under Queiroz to players based in Europe, and especially amidst the economic decline within national borders.
An institution that may translate domestic achievements into continental relevance, however, is FC Pars Jonoubi Jam Bushehr. Only promoted as champions from the Azadegan League, or second division, last season; the 11-year-old club was only founded in 2007 as a cultural facet of the Pars Special Energy Economic Zone (PSEEZ), a government facility on the Persian Gulf to exploit statistically the world’s largest natural gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field. This economy is so valuable, and culturally pivotal to the Iranians, that the town, or nominal city, of Asaluyeh where the PSEEZ is based is now effectively synonymous, or even predominated, by the PSEEZ. A population of almost 5,000 is subjugated by employees in the sector, and the preceding industry of fishing bears little influence today in the port conurbation; poverty remains, however, for those not supported by oil riches, despite extensive foreign investment in the centre and recent attempts by the Iranian government to cultivate a more healthy, admirable community for working and traditional inhabitants alike.
Owing to the vast geographical expanse of the Iranian state, over 1,200km separate the Takhti Stadium, based in Jam, another ‘city’ an entire 83km from Asaluyeh and PSEEZ itself, and the capital Tehran’s commanding structures; principally the crater-like, reduced 78,116-capacity Azadi (“freedom”) Stadium home to both Persepolis and Esteghlal. How Jonoubi have maintained their relatively close pursuit of runaway 2017-18 Pro League leaders Persepolis – at the time of writing twelve points in dividends to the Tehran outfit in third place after 19 matches, while Foolad sit a point and place higher – presents an intrinsic inquiry of logistics, and also of the sustainability of financial structures. The fall of a number of secondary establishments may well be ushered in by the conflicting rise of Jonoubi, and of Qods’ Paykan FC – named after the nation’s most iconic car, and owned by state automobile company Iran Khodro – a yo-yo side in recent seasons, having reached their highest position last season since 2002-03, in sixth, and all things considered for the state of Iranian domestic competition, this may not prove too distressing to international performances. Esteghlal Khuzestan are an adept predecessor to this trend, having held aloft the 2015-16 Pro League title after only four prior seasons as a tangible club – purchasing the second division licence of Esteghlal Jonoub Tehran in 2011, while backed by the funds of the Abadan-based Zagros Airlines, within the same region of Khuzestan in the nation’s climactically hostile south-west. With the acquisition of Jonoub’s identity and, in 2014-15, Foolad B (reserve) team’s assets and, as it turned out, many of its talented local youngsters, given the legal inability of reserve teams to be promoted to the Pro League, Khuzestan simmered wholly unexpectedly through the 2015-16 season, while leading standings at the end of only seven of 30 total weeks of action, to dispose of the close challenges of long-term leaders Esteghlal and Persepolis, who recovered from a number of early stumbles to take the equation to goal difference; ultimately dependent on the Ahvaz-based outfit having conceded only 14 goals, a feat only once equalled in the Pro League’s 16-season history, by Persepolis the term after.
These commercial funds have little of the systemic influence of Chinese proceedings, regardless of the shifting sands partially, if ephemerally, witnessed in Persia. In many respects, the methods assumed by newly-employed directors and chairmen in clubs that have risen rapidly through the domestic pyramid are directly comparable to those adopted in late 1970s to ‘80s Soviet politics. The focus of this economic investment is not in sustainable facets, including training complexes and academy systems, but predominantly first-team, high-profile prowess. It is a narrow perspective, perhaps accepting the circumstance of the age in the economic stagnation of Iran as a nation. The irreversibly corrupt and ageing establishment of Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev was so consumed in its disenfranchisement to even attempt to avert the inevitable; when Mikhail Gorbachev was finally handed the reigns, his reforms were impossible to realistically impose, and everyone recognised this. Nationalist dissidents had already abandoned hope, and many politicians viewed this regime’s reforms as an overly extreme admission of ideological fault; few received Glasnost and Perestroika in the fundamental sentiment in which they were composed, and while this apathy, bordering on cynicism, wasn’t the sole affliction to Gorbachev, it certainly contributed with a stinging resonance. The conglomerates, many of whom are inherently tied to state proceedings, involved in Iranian club ownership today demonstrate many an equal trait of cynicism. They mould the status quo to favour their side with short-term injections, and abandon coherent visions beyond twelve months with the apparent pragmatism that the nation’s economic affliction may not sustain competition. They may not have lost total faith, but demonstrate little overt optimism and feature only globally prominent industries – oil and airlines – as the newly emergent challengers, while falling from inherent favour in national squads to a distinct aura of inexperience in paling to European-based contemporaries.
Few would consider this new era a sustainable one, either, all things considered. A reliance on the composure and expendability of Dejagah, Ghoochannejhad, Ansarifard, Hajsafi and Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun – who, at just 23, has 22 goals to his name from 30 international appearances, and will have vast expectation at the tournament itself, having played his entire senior domestic career in Russia – could easily result in failure at the loss of one or two of such pivotal pegs, and an exposure on the highest stage as a subordinate outfit. Each hailing from different youth academies, it appears only pot luck determines the production of such leading lights.
These fates can only be amplified by group stage opponents of the calibre of Spain, Portugal and Morocco – each fine national teams under the tutelage of outstanding coaches, and enjoying some of the brightest eras in the history of their existence as national representatives – come mid-June in Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Saransk. This is by no means to undermine the strength of Iranian domestic competition, of course, but in relativity to the depth presented by players plying their trade in La Liga, the English Premier League, Liga NOS, Serie A and the Eredivisie, perhaps this is a dramatic disposition of individual ability. Yet, as we may regale, individuals have never won matches, only constituent moments within. It is not, quite clearly, as easy to present the rhetoric of high-profile individualism vs small-time unification, while nor is it by any means responsible to deride tactical opposition at such an early stage before Russia. Any number of unforeseeable events could conceivably arise in the six months that separate us from the competition proper, and divulge another fate entirely for our sides.
If 2014 could have been considered at the time as both the modern peak and death knell alike of Iranian ambitions – given the hope instilled by Queiroz’s management, and the economic decline that preceded – then now we have a rebirth. The domestic system can still be bought, but only temporarily from internal Persepolis favour, and another contingent of untamed, largely unproven talent is eyeing up the tournament across the border with great hunger. Queiroz, now, as a result has at his disposal an entirely commendable and skilled squad forget in his spirit – but where it can go, and its ability to significantly exceed expectations and defy constraints, is an ambiguity drenched in doubt. In a national team that, under the administrative influence of former businessman, economist and athlete Ali Kafashian and successor Mehdi Taj – a lifelong sports administrator, with various positions within the Iranian association and Football League Organisation, and also at Sepahan and sports newspaper Jahan Varzesh – as FFIRI President, has instilled a healthy, cohesive vision, little has escaped their aspirations. And nor should it. The distinct divide between the state and the team is sufficient, I would argue, that even if success at the tournament is exploited as a political triumph, it will not galvanise the general population in the same respect as the footballing kinship, and cannot lavish long upon the socio-economic disparities of Iranian society.
Practically equidistant between this year’s hosts, and the apparently formally accepted 2022 venues of Qatar, the geopolitical undertones of their participation will only be protracted, yet Queiroz, or any potential successor, will not allow distraction amongst the unit landing with the expectations of a diverse community. Their campaigns do not consist of mediocrity, as they never can in such a compelling environment. To achieve here, an iron will, a politically autonomous, bordering on naïve, stance and a resolute tact is required; as so proven in the recent exploits of the Syrian side, deeply entrenched in national politics and ousted at the last by Australia, the Saudi Arabian squad that reached only their fifth finals and the Uzbek team that was only ousted to third place by Syria after a political upheaval ushered in by the death of their long-term President. To achieve on the global stage, however, is another beast entirely, and has proved all but an unprecedented achievement for Asian sides, on all occasions other than the 2002 South Korean and Japanese-hosted edition. One may observe that the divide between the continent’s representatives and advancing Europeans and South Americans has only extended since, and thus, only a minor miracle of tactical, behavioural and injury-defiant alignment will deliver an upset to their Strait of Gibraltar opponents – Spain, Portugal and Morocco – this summer. Or we could adopt the romantic’s perspective; merely exceeding their previous tournament goalscoring record of two would truly honour the achievements of this side, and who is there to defy them? Only the small matter of the 2010 World Cup victors, 2016 European champions and Africa’s fifth-ranked outfit, under the tutelage of the acclaimed Hervé Renard. Small fry, really…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!