Group 1: Iran, Jordan, Qatar, Laos
Team Melli would be led by Branko Ivankovic, assistant coach to Miroslav Blazevic during 2002 Qualifying. The Iranian supporters were obviously not happy about TM missing out on the 2002 World Cup but this was a new qualifying campaign and maybe Branko would be able to get more out of the Iranian players.
The second round consisted of eight groups of four teams and the top team in each group would advance to the final round.
Iran v Qatar 18 February 2004 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
This match was actually played behind closed doors due to crowd disturbances during a 2004 Asian Cup Qualifier in Tehran between Iran and North Korea.
Even though there were no fans in the stadium, Iran got off to a good start when Alireza Vahedi-Nikbakht put TM ahead after eight minutes. Mehdi Mahdavikia made it 2-0 right before the end of the half with a nice shot from just inside the penalty area.
Ali Karimi was fouled in the penalty area just after the hour mark and Ali Daei converted the spot kick to put Iran up 3-0. Eight minutes Waleed Hamzah converted a penalty to pull the Qataris within 3-1 but that’s how game ended. A 3-1 win for Branko Ivankovic and Iran was a perfect start in their quest to qualify to Germany.
Laos v Iran 31 March 2004 Laos National Stadium Vientiane, Laos
This was an easy win for Iran against minnows Laos. TM were up 4-0 after thirty-six minutes. Two goals were scored by Ali Daei and two were scored by Reza Enayati. The score increased to 5-0 by way of an own-goal by Nitsavong Khouphachansy. A brace from Ebrahim Taghipour in the 68th and 83rd minute gave Iran a 7-0 win.
Iran v Jordan 9 June 2004 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
Only 35000 fans were in attendance but this was a frustrating match for Team Melli. The Iranians dominated and had numerous chances but the only problem was that they were unable to score. The unthinkable happened in the 83rd minute: Haitham Al-Shboul scored to give Jordan a 1-0 lead. The Iranian players desperately tried to find an equalizer but they couldn’t. It was literally a disaster and at the final whistle, the Iranian players and supporters were stunned. Nobody could believe that Iran had lost a competitive match at Azadi Stadium for the first time in many years. The Jordanians were not the better team but it didn’t matter because they left Tehran with three points and they were now in the driver seat and controlled their own destiny to advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
I remember when I found out the result of this game. I was upset and I was also worried. I right away knew the rematch in Amman would be a must-win game for Iran. Even a tie wouldn’t be good enough. What if Iran missed out on a second world cup in a row?
Fortunately for TM, they had three months to prepare for the big showdown with Jordan. Head coach Branko Ivankovic knew his job was on the line. He already saw former colleague Blazevic fail to take Iran to the world cup and he wasn’t in the mood to follow in his footsteps. Prior to the big game against Jordan, Ivankovic called up the famous Khodadad Azizi and top striker Vahid Hashemian. Azizi had not featured for Iran since 2000 due to his differences with former coach Blazevic. Hashemian also had problems with Blazevic and Ivankovic and didn’t feature for Iran during 2002 qualifying. But the fact is that Ivankovic didn’t care about grudges, he only cared about helping Team Melli. Hashemian stated he would only return for the fans, not for the federation.
Jordan v Iran 8 September 2004 Amman International Stadium Jordan
The first half was scoreless and it was no surprise that the Jordanians were putting everyone behind the ball. Their plan was to park the bus and hold out for a tie because they had already done their job in Tehran. TM were the better side in the first half but they were still unable to score. They may have been upset but they definitely did not lose their composure.
The Jordanians also rarely threatened in the second half but the Iranians kept pressing forward. A goal had to come eventually and it finally did in the 80th minute when a long ball from Javad Nekounam was headed by Alireza Vahedi-Nikbakht and sailed over the head of Jordanian keeper Amer Shafi. Nikbakht was so happy that he chose to do a salute to the Jordanian King that was in attendance at the stadium.
In the first minute of stoppage time, a cross from the right from Vahid Hashemian was headed home by Ali Daei to give Iran a 2-0 win! What a huge victory for TM. Not only did they win, but by winning 2-0 they held the head-to-head tiebreaker against Jordan if the two teams were to finish tied on points after the last match day.
I was extremely relieved after this match because it made me realize that TM wanted to qualify to the world cup very badly. But in all honesty, I quickly realized that Iran weren’t out of the woods yet because they still had to play Qatar in Doha one month later. Qatar, similar to Bahrain, were known to play psychological games and use time-wasting tactics. Qatar have never been a powerhouse in Asian football but they are always tough to beat when they play at home. The Bahrainis played dirty against Iran in 2001 to help the Saudis and clearly the Qataris would be content with helping their Jordanian friends.
Qatar v Iran 3 October 2004 Al-Gharafa Stadium Doha, Qatar
Ali Daei was unable to play in this match because of an injury but these were the times when TM fans realized that Ali Daei was getting older and had passed his prime.
Nine minutes into the match, a great run by Ali Karmi created a chance for Vahid Hashemian. Vahid fired a shot from outside the penalty area that bounced off the far post and into the net to give Iran a 1-0 lead. Hashemian, the striker who was plying his trade for Bayern Munich at the time, showed why Branko Ivankovic needed him so badly.
Nine minutes later Bilal Mohammed headed in a cross past Iranian keeper Mehdi Rahmati to tie the score at 1-1. The match remained tied going into the interval and the Iranians knew they had to win because the Jordanians defeated Laos 3-2 earlier that same day.
The second half started and neither team was able to find a goal in a tight match but in the 75tth minute, a cross from the right by the Qataris was headed towards one of the Qatari strikers. Iranian center back Yahya Golmohammadi got his foot on the ball to disrupt the centering pass but the ball went off the bottom of the cross bar and into the Iranian net to give Qatar a 2-1 lead. Golmohammadi laid on his back in disbelief and was wondering if he had just ended Iran’s chances of qualifying to Germany. Iranian keeper Rahmati picked up Yahya and encouraged him to get up and play. The game wasn’t over yet.
I wasn’t able to watch this match because I was in my German history class at Chico State University. My friend was giving me text message updates but when I got the text about Golmohammadi’s own-goal, I almost went numb. I immediately looked at the clock in the classroom just to know how much time Iran had left to score two goals. This was a game Iran had to win, a tie would do no good knowing that the Qataris definitely would have let the Jordanians beat them the following match if it meant eliminating Iran. My heart started pounding very fast and I already began to imagine that maybe Iran would miss out on a second consecutive world cup.
Four minutes later a pass from Hossein Kaebi beat the Qatari offside trap and second half substitute Arash Borhani scored to tie the match 2-2.
Afterwards, Ivankovic brought on Khodadad Azizi because he needed some more offensive firepower. Meanwhile, the Qataris were faking injuries and rolling around on the grass to try and waste time and take the Iranians off their game. But it didn’t work. The Iranians stuck to their game and kept fighting.
For a quick moment it looked as though Iran had taken a 3-2 lead through Azizi but the goal was disallowed due to a close offside call.
In the 89th minute, Azizi fed a nice pass to Mehdi Mahdavikia and he carried the ball deep into the Qatari penalty area. Mahdavikia then crossed the ball into the six-yard box and it was fired into the roof of the net by Vahid Hashemian! Iran led 3-2 and the TM supporters in the stadium went into raptures!
I remember getting the text message update of Borhani’s goal and I felt a little optimistic but I was also getting much more nervous because I knew time was running out. It was a terrible feeling being nervous and not being able to watch the match but when I got the update of Hashemian’s goal, I was so happy. I knew Iran were almost there.
The Qataris tried to find the equalizer in stoppage time but they had nothing left in them and when the final whistle blew, the Iranian players and coaches were happy and relieved because they knew they had just won the group and booked a spot in the final round of qualification.
I watched the highlights as soon as I could when I got home that day and I remember being so proud of the Iranian players because they kept their composure and showed how much they matured compared to the team that lost their focus against Bahrain in 2001. What a win by Team Melli and all that was left was an easy win against Laos in Tehran. But Vahid Hashemian, wow. What a big time player! He saved Iran and everyone realized that Branko made an excellent decision in calling Vahid back into Team Melli.
Iran v Laos 17 November 2004 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
This game was a cake-walk for Iran and Ali Daei already had a hat-trick after twenty-eight minutes and Iran led 3-0 at the half.
Ali Daei added one more in the 58th minute, Javad Nekounam scored two, and Arash Borhani added one to give Iran a 7-0 victory.
Iran won the group despite all the drama but more importantly, they looked confident and dangerous with the addition of Vahid Hashemian heading into the final round of qualifying.
Group 1: South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Uzbekistan
Group 2: Iran, Japan, North Korea, Bahrain
The top two teams in each group would qualify to the 2006 World Cup in Germany while the third place teams would play against each other to see which team would advance to a play-off against the fourth place team from CONCACAF.
Branko Ivankovic was not done adding depth to Team Melli. Prior to the start of the final round of qualifying, Branko convinced Fereydoon Zandi to join TM. Zandi was born in Germany from an Iranian father and German mother. Zandi didn’t speak perfect Farsi and had been playing in the Bundesliga for Kaiserslautern but he was finally convinced to suit up for Iran because he knew he would have the chance of appearing in a world cup.
Once the draw for the final round took place, the Iranians realized they would have two chances to get revenge on the Bahrainis.
Bahrain v Iran 9 February 2005 Bahrain National Stadium Manama
Iranian fans had been waiting for this match for a long time but it turned out to be boring and uneventful as the match ended in a scoreless draw. TM technically did get revenge against Bahrain in the 3rd place match at the 2004 Asian Cup with a 4-2 victory but everyone knew revenge would be sweeter in world cup qualifying.
The Iranian media wasted no time and took to criticizing Branko and TM for being passive and lacking a killer instinct. I wasn’t happy with the scoreless draw but I felt good about Iran’s chances in the upcoming games.
Iran v Japan 25 March 2005 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
Prior to this match, Branko Ivankovic said that a win against Japan would mean qualification to Germany for the World Cup. In all honesty, the statement by Branko confused some people because this was only the second match of the final round but he believed beating the champions of Asia would lead to wins against North Korea and Bahrain.
The Iranian fans were pumped up and ready for the showdown with Japan. There were reports that over 120,000 fans had already packed into the Azadi Stadium four hours before kickoff. The TM fanatics had the goals of cheering the Iranians to victory and intimidating the visiting Blue Samurai of Japan.
Thirteen minutes into the match, Iran took the lead through Vahid Hashemian. Mehdi Mahdavikia took a free kick from near the center of the field and his long curvy kick found its way into traffic in the penalty area and Javad Nekounam got a touch on the ball near the Japanese defenders. Vahid Hashemian pounced on the loose ball and fired it past keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi to put Iran up 1-0.
Six minutes after the hour mark, a free kick for the Japanese was parried by Iranian keeper Ebrahim Mirzapour but the rebound was put in by Takashi Fukunishi to tie the match up at 1-1.
Fifteen minutes remained on the clock when Mehdi Mahdavikia started a move inside the Iranian half of the field. Mahdavikia then sent a nice pass to Ali Karimi on the right side of the penalty area near the end line. Karimi sent in a cross with his left foot and Vahid Hashemian, positioned between two Japanese defenders, jumped up to head the ball into the net. Kawaguchi had no chance to stop Hashemian’s header. Iran regained the lead to go up 2-1 and the fans in the Azadi Stadium erupted.
Hashemian had made quite a name for himself during this time in Germany playing for Bochum and Bayern Munich. The German media began referring to him as “The Helicopter” (Die Hubschrauber) because of his leaping abilities and skills with heading the ball. He definitely lived up to his reputation as his two goals gave Iran a vital 2-1 victory over Japan.
North Korea v Iran 30 March 2005 Kim Il Sung Stadium Pyongyang
This match took place five days after the win against Japan but what a long distance to travel. Clearly the Iranians could have been suffering from fatigue and jet lag because of the trip but there was no time to make excuses.
With about eleven minutes remaining in the first half, Iran had a free kick inside the North Korean half but nearly forty years away from the goal. Mehdi Mahdavikia’s free kick went into traffic in the North Korean penalty area and the ball deflected off a North Korean player and went into the net to give Iran a 1-0 lead. At that time the goal was put in the book as an own-goal but it was eventually credited as a goal to Mahdavikia. Either way, Iran took a 1-0 lead into the half.
The North Koreans looked for the equalizer in the second half but both teams were playing tight defense. At times it looked as though the Iranians would be content with holding onto a one goal victory.
Ali Karimi took possession of the ball in his own half and found Vahid Hashemian and the ball came back to Karimi at the top of the North Korean penalty area. Karimi fed the perfect pass that was finished off in style by Javad Nekounam to give Iran a huge 2-0 lead.
To their credit, the North Koreans kept pushing forward looking for a goal. They came close to scoring when there was contact in the penalty area but the referee did not award a penalty. The North Korean fans and players were furious and some of them even shoved the Syrian referee.
At the conclusion of the match, the Iranian players couldn’t leave the field because the fans began throwing things onto the field. Riot police had to be called in just to clear fans out of the way in order to let the Iranian players get on the bus to leave the stadium.
But despite all the drama, Iran were looking good with two victories after a long and exhausting trip. Seven points after three matches, TM were in the driver seat.
Iran v North Korea 3 June 2005 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
The North Koreans were always known to play extra defensive football and this time they still stuck to their plan but they rarely had any chances to score against TM.
Ali Karimi was fouled in the last minute of the first half and TM had a free kick. As always, it was Mahdavikia who took the free kick. Mahdavikia’s free kick went past the far post but still in bounds, it was headed towards the center of the six-yard box by Yahya Golmohammadi. The other center back Rahman Rezaei got his head on the ball and saw it bounce off the bottom of the bar and cross the goal line to give Iran a 1-0 lead right at the end of the first half.
The goal was perfect timing for TM and it turned out to be the only goal of the match. Iran won 1-0 and they were getting closer to clinching a spot in the 2006 World Cup.
Iran v Bahrain 8 June 2005 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
Iranian fans had been waiting for this moment for nearly four years. A match against Bahrain in Tehran with the opportunity to clinch a spot in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. A win or a tie would guarantee Iran automatic qualification to Germany. The Iranian supporters and players wanted revenge against Bahrain from what happened in 2001. Before this match, it was important for the TM players to be focused on winning instead of being focused on revenge because we all know that focusing on revenge could have taken Iran off their game. But either way, it was time for the big match and the Iranian supporters were hoping to celebrate.
Iran got off to a fast start and nearly scored on a corner kick early on when Mohammad Nosrati hit the post. The Bahrainis never threatened in the first half and were on the defensive the entire time. The first half ended 0-0 but the Iranians knew they had all the momentum.
At the start of the second half, right back Hossein Kaebi made a nice move and was fouled by Bahraini defender Nasser near the Bahraini penalty area. Midfielder Fereydoon Zandi took the free kick and it was headed in by defender Mohammad Nosrati to give Iran a 1-0 lead. The fans at the Azadi Stadium went crazy. Nosrati was actually starting for Rahman Rezaei to due picking up a second yellow card in the previous match against North Korea. Nosrati definitely did not disappoint and his celebration after the goal surely will never be forgotten by Iranian fans.
The Bahrainis did manage to press forward a bit during the second half to try and find the equalizer but the Iranians defended well and they also searched for a second goal. TM had no intentions of sitting back and protecting the lead. At times the second half was physical and little by little, the Iranian players and fans could feel it. They were closer and closer to the world cup. Ebrahim Mirzapour was on top of his game. The fans in the Azadi Stadium could hardly contain their euphoria in the final minutes. They knew Iran had qualified to the World Cup.
The Iranian players, coaches, and fans went crazy at the final whistle. It was time for the whole country of Iran to celebrate in the streets. What a great job by Branko Ivankovic in leading TM to the world cup. The revenge on Bahrain was sweet but seeing the look on the faces of Iranian fans and players was the best. Nearly four years earlier, players and fans cried tears of sadness at the same venue but on this day they were able to shed tears of joy and jump for joy.
I was so happy this day. It didn’t compare to the emotions I felt when Iran qualified in 1997 but I jumped around my apartment that morning. I knew Iran would qualify once they got past Jordan and Qatar in the previous round. I just had that feeling.
Japan v Iran 17 August 2005 International Stadium Yokohama
This game was merely a formality as both teams had already qualified to the 2006 World Cup. TM only called up their domestic based players. Japan won 2-1, Akira Kaji scored in the 28th minute and Masashi Oguro added the second in the 76th minute. Ali Daei scored on a penalty kick with eleven minutes remaining but there was no way I could be bothered about this loss. All I could do was wait for my trip to Germany!