What an asset Iran were to this World Cup. Today they’re out, squeezed from a group which was seen as a formality before the tournament began, but neither Spain nor Portugal will be in any hurry to see Carlos Queiroz’s team again.
The approach of World Cup underdogs has been under scrutiny in recent days and, really, for much of the last decade. While purists have insisted that seeing new, fresh teams from different parts of the world is inherently good for the game’s overall state, there are others who see debutante sides from under-powered nations as a threat to the World Cup’s spectacle.
It’s an argument with two sides. On the one hand, it’s clearly important for the tournament to be an open event and an achievable goal for under-funded federations. On the other – yes – the World Cup is intended as a gift to supporters and, sometimes, the necessarily negative tactics employed by those who are out-matched do little to serve that.
Nevertheless, the only route towards a broader footballing world passes through the World Cup itself. If countries are ever to become more than cannon-fodder, they must be afforded some aspiration – they must be allowed to pique the interest of their population, to attract higher-calibre coaches and, crucially, see the justification in infrastructural investment.
Iran used their participation in 2018 to do just that. For a more detailed account of their qualifying campaign the video below is essential viewing, but – just on a superficial level – their involvement this year can not be seen as anything but a triumph.
Why? Because they were bold, aggressive and different. They performed as if they intend to return one day and go further.
Today, football is approaching homogeneity. Europe dominates the sport to such an extent, that it can be very hard to escape the conclusion that the age of innovation has passed. To succeed, everyone must play in more or less in the same way, or at least borrow the principles of a small group of previously successful sides. The consequence is a lack of variation. It may be a simplification, but teams either sit off and restrict or counter-press with frothing aggression.
Iran didn’t reinvent any wheels in Russia. They were a subdue-and-counter-attack side built on organisation who, when they were chasing games, showed the capacity to advance with method rather than just blunt urgency. Their attraction, though, lay in their refusal to accept their place. History will record that they took just a single point from those games with Portugal and Spain and that they also didn’t score from open-play, but the experience of actually watching that 180 minutes will be vivid for some time. Iran were a menace. They were a horrible side. Not content just to turn up, swap shirts with some famous players and get patted on the head for effort, they exerted every ounce of cunning, commitment and whatever else in pursuit of the most unlikely advancement.
It was refreshing. In fact, it was a challenge to the game’s orthodoxy. Common sense dicates that to be from somewhere other than Europe or South America is to have no hope. Without the world-class talent that those regions produce and attract, qualifying for the group stage is solely an opportunity to take a humble lap of honour. It may be deserved, but it isn’t necessarily in the interests of anyone other than the native federation. As an example, Panama’s two-and-out in Group G will be remembered for ever in Central America, but will it really inspire a future generations to put on studs and start kicking a ball? Maybe, maybe not. Panama may warrant their gentle applause, but World Cup qualification would seem to represent little more than the chance to be humbled.
But not in Iran. The key aspect to their performance was the suggestion of what it may lead to. Had Quieroz’s team been endowed with a stronger centre-forward and some composure, they would likely be taking their place in the knockout round this weekend. Though still ultimately unsuccessful, theirs has been a campaign to generate momentum – one which poses a tantalising What If? to the aspirant players back home and the executives who control the sport’s local future.
Now, more so than ever before, it’s impossible to expect a long-absent nation to enter a World Cup and go far. The best alternative though, is that – on getting there – they perform in a way which makes the experience clearly useful. It’s the difference between viewing it as a once-in-a-lifetime trip, and the first of many.
Today, Iran can go home to the welcome they deserve. Tomorrow, they can credibly begin their pursuit of what they need to go further.