Leading up to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, the situation with Iran and their football federation was a mess. In all honesty, I think the word mess is an understatement. After failing to get out of the group stage at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Iranian Football Federation President Mohammad Dadkan was fired and replaced with a government official. TM was briefly suspended for government interference but the suspension was quickly lifted.
Amir Ghalenoei was hired as head coach after Branko Ivankovic resigned. Iran were eliminated by South Korea in the 2007 Asian Cup Quarterfinals on penalties. TM wasn’t exactly terrible under Ghalenoei but the fans were upset and they also questioned his player selection, formation, and strategy.
Iran had not played any matches from July 2007 to January 2008. During that time, TM did not have a head coach. It was a disaster and it was actually even a bit embarrassing that one of the most respected teams in Asian football was in complete disarray.
The third round consisted of five groups of four teams and the top two teams in each group would advance to the final round.
Group 5: Iran, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Syria
Prior to Iran’s first match against Syria, they still did not have an official head coach. Mansour Ebrahimzadeh was given the task as caretaker until a permanent head coach was hired.
Whoever was given the responsibility of trying to guide Iran to the world cup would be in a tough situation because TM were at a crossroads considering the veterans were getting older and a new crop of young players needed to be established. Also, TM lacked a reliable striker. Vahid Hashemian was getting older and had lost a step. In fact, Hashemian said he did not want to accept any call-ups to TM during the third round of qualifying but would definitely report to training for the final round.
Iran v Syria 6 February 2008 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
Only 45,000 fans packed into the Azadi Stadium and TM were missing starters that would have given them a better chance to win. This match against Syria was boring and uneventful. The match ended in a scoreless draw. TM fans were not happy with the result despite bad preparation. The fact is that Syria was not a dangerous opponent at the time but TM needed a good head coach to steer them in the right direction.
Prior to the next match, the Iranian Football Federation shocked Iranian football fans with the hiring of former captain Ali Daei as head coach of TM. At that time, Ali Daei was managing Saipa in the Iranian Pro League and was just about to turn thirty-nine years old. For a long time, Daei was highly respected by Iranian football fans but he eventually became a controversial figure amongst football fans due his presence at the 2006 World Cup. Football fans and critics felt he was too old and that he slowed down TM. Surely this would be his opportunity to change his legacy and his first world cup qualifier as head coach would take place three weeks after he was hired.
Kuwait v Iran 26 March 2008 Al-Kuwait Sports Club Stadium
It was a windy night in Kuwait City and Ali Daei got off to a perfect start as head coach of Team Melli. A free kick from Jalal Hosseini in the second minute saw the ball carry far with the wind. The ball went into the Kuwaiti penalty area and hit the chest of Alireza Vahedi-Nikbakht. Next, something amazing happened. After controlling the ball with his chest, Nikbakht did a bicycle kick and fired the ball with his left foot. The ball bounced off the post and went into the net to give Iran a 1-0 lead.
Three minutes later, Jalal Hosseini had a free kick from just inside the Iranian half of the field. It was basically taken from the same spot as the previous free kick that resulted in the bicycle kick goal from Nikbakht. Hosseini sent the ball deep into the Kuwaiti penalty area again but this time the Kuwaiti keeper misjudged the ball, bumped into his own defender, and the ball went into the net to give Iran a 2-0 lead. This was literally the best start for Ali Daei but at the same time, there was plenty of time remaining.
The Kuwaitis got back into the match when striker Ahmad Ajab cut the lead in the 38th minute. TM had a 2-1 lead going into halftime but it was the Kuwaitis that had more momentum. It seemed as though Ali Daei and the Iranian players were content with trying to sit on the lead instead of pushing for a third goal.
The Iranians definitely did not make things easier for themselves and they paid the price when Fahad Al-Rashidi equalized in the 81st minute.
The match ended in a 2-2 draw and TM fans were once again upset. Nobody cared anymore about the two goals scored by Iran in the first five minutes. I still remember my friend commenting that no one would be trash talking Ali Daei after TM took a 2-0 lead but I do remember telling him to calm down and that there was a lot of time remaining.
Iran v United Arab Emirates 2 June 2008 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
This turned out to be another frustrating match. TM dominated possession but were unable to score and they also didn’t create the best opportunities to score as well. The Emiratis parked the bus in hopes of taking a point from Tehran. They did exactly that as the match ended in a 0-0 draw.
I was distraught after this game. Before this round started I felt that finishing top two in the group would be easy but now us TM fans were dealing with possibility that maybe Iran would not make to the final round of qualification. This was not a good feeling and I did what I could to not point so much blame at Ali Daei but something had to be done. The next game was a must-win. No excuses.
United Arab Emirates v Iran 7 June 2008 Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium Al-Ain
The pressure was on Ali Daei and TM for this match, they had to win. Not only did they have to win but they needed to score. Being shut out two times in the first three matches was nothing to celebrate.
Eight minutes into the match, midfielder Masoud Shojaei sent a nice pass to Fereydoon Zandi that beat the UAE offside trap. The left-footed Zandi quickly readjusted and chipped the ball over the Emirati keeper to give Iran a 1-0 lead. The Emirati defenders claimed offside and the replay actually shows that Zandi may have been offside but the goal counted and Iran led 1-0.
The goal by Zandi turned out to be the only goal of the match as Iran held onto a huge 1-0 win. Keeper Mehdi Rahmati fell to his knees in celebration at the final whistle.
Syria v Iran 14 June 2008 Abbasiyyin Stadium Damascus, Syria
The Iranian players were in a much more upbeat mood due to their win over UAE one week earlier but a win against Syria would clinch them a spot in the final round of qualification.
The first half ended scoreless but the Iranians did dodge a bullet when a deflected shot by the Syrians rattled the crossbar.
Four minutes after the hour mark, a move was started by captain Javad Nekounam deep in his own half. The ball found its way to midfielder Ebrahim Sadeghi and he started a nice give and go with forward Gholamreza Rezaei. The ball came back to Sadeghi and he sent a pass into the Syrian penalty area towards Rezaei. There was traffic in the penalty area with Syrian defenders and the Syrian keeper came off his line but the ball got to Rezaei and he quickly fired in a shot to give Iran a 1-0 lead.
The Syrians were looking for the equalizer but the TM players still controlled the match. Late in stoppage time Andranik Teymourian carried the ball down the left sideline. Teymourian then got the ball to Mojtaba Jabari and Jabari got the ball to an unmarked Mohsen Khalili where he easily scored to give Iran a 2-0 win. Ali Daei was ecstatic on the sidelines and TM clinched a spot in the final round.
Iran v Kuwait 22 June 2008 Azadi Stadium Tehran, Iran
This match was a formality because Iran had already clinched a spot in the final round. But the Iranians were in the mood to give their supporters something to cheer about and captain Javad Nekounam did just that when he rifled a shot from nearly thirty yards out that bounced off the bottom of the cross bar and into the net to give TM a 1-0 lead after seventeen minutes.
This match was never in doubt and forward Gholamreza Rezaei added another goal in the second minute of stoppage time when he capitalized on a mistake by the Kuwaiti defenders in their own penalty area. An easy 2-0 win for Iran was the perfect way to finish the third round of qualification.
At this time, I was obviously happy and relieved but I didn’t see any reason to get overconfident. TM started off slowly with three draws and finished strong with three wins but the quality of their wins against UAE, Syria, and Kuwait did not impress me. I felt that there was still a lot of work to do if TM wanted to book a spot in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.