Iran come to the World Cup with high hopes of reaching the knockout stages after an impressive campaign in qualifying and at the tournament in Russia four years ago; although their preparation has been hindered by the recent sacking of head coach Dragan Skocic and the re-hiring of Carlos Queiroz.
Skocic took charge of Iran in February 2020 and helped them finish top of the Asian qualification group, picking up 25 out of a possible 30 points which is Iran’s highest ever tally in World Cup qualifiers. He won 15 of his 18 games as head coach but disputes with senior players saw him lose his job permanently in September with Queiroz, who managed Iran at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, reinstated with just two months to go before the tournament.
AEK Athens’ Ehsan Hajsafi is Iran’s most experienced player and captains a squad featuring former Brighton man Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who spent three seasons at the Amex Stadium before leaving for Feyenoord last summer, Brentford midfielder Saman Ghoddos and 30-year-old Karim Ansarifard who scored against Manchester United for Omonia Nicosia in a Europa League group game in early October.
Team Melli, as they are known, are 21st in the FIFA world rankings and have been drawn in Group B where they will face England for the first time ever along with Wales and the USA. This will be their sixth World Cup campaign (1978, 1998, 2006, 2014, 2018, and 2022) though they have never reached the knockout rounds with the 2018 campaign – when they missed out by one point – their closest attempt.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Monday 21 November: England vs Iran – 13:00
Friday 25 November: Wales vs Iran – 10:00
Tuesday 29 November: Iran vs USA – 19:00
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Amir Abedzadeh (Ponferradina), Seyed Hossein Hosseini (Esteghlal), Payam Niazmand (Sepahan)
Defenders: Ehsan Hajsafi (AEK Athens), Morteza Pouraliganji (Persepolis), Ramin Rezaeian (Sepahan), Milad Mohammadi (AEK Athens), Hossein Kanaanizadegan (Al Ahli), Shojae Khalilzadeh (Al Ahli), Sadegh Moharrami (Dinamo Zagreb), Rouzbeh Cheshmi ( Esteghlal), Majid Hosseini (Kayserispor), Abolfazl Jalali (Esteghlal)
Midfielders: Ahmad Noorollahi (Shabab Al Ahli), Saman Ghoddos (Brentford), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Saeid Ezatolahi (Vejle), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (Feyenoord), Mehdi Torabi (Persepolis), Ali Gholizadeh (Charleroi), Ali Karimi (Kayserispor).
Forwards: Karim Ansarifard (Omonia Nicosia), Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen), Mehdi Taremi (Porto)
Ones to watch
Star – Sardar Azmoun: Nicknamed the ‘Iranian Messi’, the 27-year-old forward will be guaranteed a place on the plane as long as he is fit. He famously retired from international football at 23 after criticism for his performance at the 2018 World Cup before back-tracking on his decision. The Bayer Leverkusen star has scored 40 goals in 62 outings for his country, is their first choice striker and most recently scored in a 1-1 draw against African champions Senegal in September.
Breakout talent – Majid Hosseini: The 26-year-old centre-back plies his trade at Turkish side Kayserispor but already has World Cup experience under his belt (he faced Spain and Portugal in 2018) and he could prove to be a vital cog in Iran’s defense as they try to reach the knockout rounds.
There is cause to be optimistic for Iran, they have an experienced coach and squad with some impressive attacking talent, but their campaign will be determined by their results against Wales and the USA who may just have too much quality for them to handle. Knocked out in the group stages.