Realistic World Cup goals have Iran fighting within its limits

( | Fox Soccer – Not every team comes to the World Cup to win it. But every team can strive and define for itself what its dream consists of. For a country that has never reached the second round of a World Cup, that achievement alone can be their fevered folly.

Iran is no powerhouse in soccer. In three previous World Cup appearances, they have won just once and never advanced. They are a large and soccer-obsessed country, but they have yet to produce a national team that is competitive on the world stage. But they are in Brazil, qualifying against tall odds. There is no doubting that they are underdogs though.

“The reality is that out of 32 teams we’re probably ranked last of the tournament,” says Dan Gaspar, the team’s Portuguese-American goalkeeper coach, who hails from Connecticut. “And our expectations are not like those of the teams we play. They came to win the World Cup; we came to earn respect.”

“We’re probably the least recognized and the least respected squad of the 32 teams,” Gaspar continues. “And our objective was to come here under that mysterious perception of Iran and try to demonstrate to the world that we can play football.”

Indeed, they have been one of the tournament’s surprises thus far. They stifled a hyper-athletic Nigeria team to a 0-0 draw in their opener and then, to the world’s shock, held contenders Argentina scoreless until the 91st minute, when a piece of Lionel Messi brilliance finally made the difference. They relied on an airtight defense, packed deep with almost all available personnel.

“I don’t think anyone would have ever imagined that Argentina would have had to beat us in extra time and that their goalkeeper’s was probably the best performance,” says Gaspar. “Although we didn’t have the possession of the ball as the Argentinians did, we certainly had the best chances.” This is true. In the second half, Iran pelted Sergio Romero’s goal with shots. And they even made a claim for a penalty that had some merit but was denied.

And then Messi, with all 11 Iranians in front of him, carved open some room outsize the box and curled a shot past everybody and everything but the net. “He just threw a dart and it pierced our hearts,” Gaspar laments.

But that Iran is in these games at all, that they are not just here but giving a good account of themselves, is a Cinderella story in its own right. “We had a lot of obstacles to overcome, probably more so than any other team that is here,” says Gaspar.

“Obviously, the [politically-motivated economic] sanctions affected us, in terms of resources and financial support and [our ability to play] high-level competitive teams in order to prepare. These guys deserve, in my opinion, a tremendous amount of respect and sympathy from the football world for what they’ve been able to accomplish under extremely stressful conditions and a lot of adversity.”

Failing to land strong opponents to play friendlies against in the run-up to the World Cup, and often even the visas to enter other countries, Iran went on extended training camps in South Africa and Austria. Most players had never even played outside of the Middle East or Iran’s qualifying region. In those camps, Portuguese head coach Carlos Queiroz, Gaspar and the rest of their staff set about preparing them for the rigors of a World Cup.

“€œTechnically, our players are fairly sound,” says Gaspar. “Physically, they’re below the international standards. And tactically, we keep things very simple because in Iran the player-developmental process doesn’t provide the foundations necessary for them to really be tactically keen. So we keep things simple, and we execute.”

Simple game plans, like defend en masse and prey on the occasional break-away. That’s how they combated Nigeria and Argentina. “In order to eliminate their strengths we needed to be organized, compact, united and strong defensively,” says Gaspar. “I thought it was a masterful plan.”

And if it came at the expense of the game’s aesthetics, then so be it. “We love the beautiful game,” says Gaspar. “But in order to execute you need the players with those characteristics, and that’s not Iran. We have to depend upon our character, our grit, our fighting spirit, in order to compete. That’s who we are.”

Californian defender Steve Beitashour is the other American on the team, owing to his parents’€™ Iranian roots. He hasn’t played yet this World Cup, but he can see where the success originates from. Iran can play as a tight unit because off the field it is, well, a tight unit. “Our team camaraderie is great,” he says. “We all hang out and the spirits are good, our mood is good. You can see it in how organized and well we played together in the first two games.”

Beitashour has gotten to work on his parents’ native tongue in an exchange of sorts with his teammates. “The guys help me with any questions I have and at the same time they enjoy speaking English and are trying to learn it as well,” he says. “So we go back and forth. I teach them some English words and they teach me some Farsi words.”

But there is more to gain here in Brazil for the Iranian team than proficiency in another language. If on Wednesday they manage to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina and Argentina beats Nigeria while an extra goal is made up in the goal difference — which is to say one of the two wins has to be by at least a two-goal margin, or else a draw will be used to separate Iran and Nigeria — Iran will advance.

Winning, however, means attacking, of which the Iranians haven’t done much yet at this World Cup. “Now it’s going to be a little bit different because we can’t go for a draw,” says Beitashour. “We’ve got to go for a win.”

Word has it — because who really knows for sure? — that Iran is already “dancing in the streets,” as Gaspar puts it, over the results thus far. But win another game — and get a little help from Argentina; they owe Iran that much – and Iran could finally truly matter.

“I think there’s a lot of pride and a lot of honor,” Gaspar says. “They are here to try to earn respect. And we’re not finished. There’s a certain belief now that we can do something special. We have one more match to play. We need to win.”

A modest dream can seem large in the right context. “Our staff never said to the Iran national team, ‘We’re here to win a World Cup.’ That simply wouldn’t be realistic,” Gaspar says. “But we did say, ‘We want to get into the next round because that would be creating history in Iranian football.’ For us, Wednesday’s game against Argentina is our World Cup final.”