ISP Editorial: The purpose of football

Author: Mahdi Rahimi I first visited an Iranian sports site around 1996, when Iran was playing at the Asian Cup and I could visit a local café that had this fancy new thing called “internet” and I would surf at an incredibly slow speed through something I had no idea what it really was and check results.

Although the teletext on our television also showed the results, I could for once read names of players like Daei or Bagheri for the first time. Days changed, internet got a bit faster and we got it at home, I still visited Iranian sites to check games. We had chat rooms with live commentary. Later, me and some local friends realized that the local mosque had a live feed from Iran so we went to the local mosque in Vienna as they were the only ones showing the game. It was always something of a spectacle, hardship and rarity to watch Iran play.

I was 16 back then and I remember fights breaking out over I don’t know what at the mosque. I guess they had to bring true stadium atmosphere to the games. Back in 97 when Iran qualified for the first time for the World Cup in my lifetime, and in the lifetime of roughly 60% of all other Iranians, we really didn’t know how it happened. I think everyone remembers the pain of watching Iran play 0-0 at home to Kuwait, lose 2-0 to Qatar, lose 3-2 to Japan and then go through the Australia games. Then came the World Cup and the rest is history, but despite having a very talented team, looking back, Iran had no idea what they were playing. It was all individual effort and zero collectiveness.

Then came the dreaded campaigns for World Cup 2002 with the game in Bahrain, the successful yet emotionally numb qualification for 2006, where it felt like the only way we cared about scoring was from a corner and then just pass the ball to death. It worked fine in Asia, but at the World Cup, even Angola played with more fire than us.

After that came the slow decline of Iran’s football, with the pathetic Asian Cup in 2007, where a great generation was robbed of their last chance to win something and go out in grace, the even worse qualification campaign for 2010 with the anti-climactic game against South Korea and we were at a point where most people thought that we would never see Iran at the World Cup again. We couldn’t see the talent of old. We went through 5 coaches in 2 years. Everyone in Asia was getting better, even North Korea was qualifying and after Ghotbi resigned, we didn’t have a coach for a year.

At some point came Carlos Quieroz and everything changed. Quieroz might just be the first coach in Iran’s history who is calling the shots and demanding. Iran’s football federation was at a point, where they just let him do what he wants. He created a team to his image: it took a while and the first results were not encouraging, but then Iran started to win, even if they just won with 1-0.

One thing is to win and qualify. Another thing is to convince your players that what you are doing is the right thing and the only way to success, even when you are not winning. Quieroz managed to do that and this might just be the greatest achievement of anyone in Iranian football history. Iran right now controls games in Asia with or without the ball as seen against Uzbekistan. Iran can play on the counter, Iran can play dominating possession. But whatever they do, Iran always has a plan. Stay tight, leave no room, play against the ball with 11 men, play forward in waves, win every second ball, move in attack without the ball and attack with purpose.

Gone are the days of individual brilliance and heroism. Today it’s about control and it’s about the knowledge that if we follow Carlos orders, we can’t lose. Compare Iran now with Iran at any time in history. Every player knows its role. Every player knows his limitations and strengths. Every player also knows that if the collective stays together, they can win against anyone on any given day. Iran does not play for moral victories anymore. Iran plays for the win. It is more than enough for Asia, as Iran controlled the qualifiers like hardly any Asian team before. But Iran starts to believe that it might even be enough for the bigger stage.

I have no idea how we will perform in Russia. We might go out with three defeats in the first round. We might even make it to the quarterfinals. All I know is that the claim we had once upon a time, around 20 years ago, that we’re the best team in Asia, a claim that looked ridiculous to think about 8 years ago, is now something we have a case for and we have qualified for the first time for the World Cup back-to-back. And for the first time we will go to the World Cup not as tourists, but as a team with purpose.