Soccer  

Can Iran’s golden generation upset England, USMNT to claim historic FIFA World Cup knockout berth?

When it comes to tradition and past accomplishments, few Asian teams can boast a richer history than Iran.

Winners of three consecutive AFC Asian Cups from 1968-76, the Iranians have produced iconic continental names recognisable even in European football like Ali Daei and Ali Karimi — who can both lay claim to having played for Bayern Munich — and Mehdi Mahdavikia, who holds legend status at fellow German outfit Hamburg.

Having made their FIFA World Cup debut as early as 1978 — the fifth to ever represent the continent — Team Melli are constantly among Asia’s best, having qualified for the last three editions of football’s biggest tournament.

Yet, for all the previous quality they have been graced with in the past, Iran have never made it out of the group stage at a World Cup.

– 2022 World Cup: All squad lists for Qatar
– World Cup team previews: Group B – United States, England, Iran, Wales

And for all the previous quality they have been graced with in the past, there is evidence to suggest that yet they have never boasted as talented a team as the one headed for Qatar 2022.

So the question now is: can Iran’s golden generation make history this year? Especially in what is undeniably a testing Group B, which also consists of England, United States and Wales?

The simple answer is ‘yes’.

Even thinking back to four years ago, in what was arguably an even tougher group that had Spain and Portugal, Team Melli had already come agonisingly close to achieving that historic knockout-round berth.

After an opening 2-1 win over Morocco followed a narrow but creditable loss to Spain, the Iranians were barely given a chance in their final outing against Portugal yet managed to hold the European giants to a 1-1 draw.

It could easily have been a victory if not for a crucial last-gasp miss by Mehdi Taremi. Ultimately, Iran would miss out in excruciating fashion as they finished a solitary point behind both Spain and Portugal.

Four years on, they have only become stronger.

13 of their 25-man squad named on Monday ply their trade in Europe.

Taremi, who was understandably distraught after that miss against Portugal, is now thriving in Europe with Porto and has five Champions League goals to his name from this season’s group stage alone.

His strike partner Sardar Azmoun, while hampered by injury since moving to Bayer Leverkusen, won four consecutive Russian Premier League titles with Zenit St. Petersburg prior to his move to the Bundesliga and was even the competition’s Player of the Season in 2020-21.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Saman Ghoddos now boast Premier League experience to their names, Majid Hosseini and Ali Gholizadeh have both followed many of their compatriots in making the grade abroad, while even more experienced stalwarts such as Karim Ansarifard and Saeid Ezatolahi are still thriving in Europe even if they may not be gracing the most high-profile competitions.

Perhaps most crucially, Iran will also be guided by one of the wiliest and savviest tacticians in the business in Carlos Queiroz, who left Team Melli after the 2019 Asian Cup but was brought back only back in September to replace Dragan Skocic.

It will be easy for the unfamiliar to write off Team Melli at first glance. There will always be more hype surrounding the other Group B contenders — England, United States, even Wales for the Gareth Bale factor.

That however is something that will not bother the Iranians.

Time will tell, but there is every chance Iran will write a long-awaited new chapter in their World Cup history in the coming weeks.