When the final whistle sounded in Russia 2018 qualifier between Iran and Korea Republic on 11 October, the Iranian players and 75,000 supporters present at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium joyfully celebrated their victory.
Nine days later, the Iranians were rejoicing again following the publication of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for October. The Asian side had moved up by no fewer than ten places, and now sit in 27th position in the overall standings, and in first place among AFC teams only. This represents Iran’s best placing since 2006, when they occupied 19th spot, just slightly lower than their record high of 15th in 2005.
The 1-0 win that Carlos Queiroz’s men recorded versus Korea Republic was not the only reason behind their surge up the rankings table, as it came less than a week after a notable success over Uzbekistan in Tashkent. In the space of a few days, Iran, now top of Group A, picked up a precious six points – taking their total to ten – from their two principal opponents in the section, in which the Uzbeks and South Koreans occupy second and third place respectively.
Queiroz was full of praise for Korea Republic, who reached the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup and have represented Asia on the global stage on nine occasions. “Playing against them was a real challenge and we learnt a lot,” he told FIFA.com. “We’ve got nothing to lose, while they have an excellent reputation due to hosting the World Cup and having a great team with great players.”
Despite topping their qualifying pool and improving their ranking, there is still a long road ahead, according to Queiroz. “The battle to get to the World Cup continues. We took three points against the Koreans, but we need more wins and more points. It’s just one step towards our goal.”
The Portuguese tactician is hopeful of steering his charges to Russia 2018, an achievement that would see him become the first coach to lead the three-time Asian champions to two successive World Cups, following their appearance at Brazil 2014.
Although Team Melli have participated in four World Cups in total, they have never qualified two consecutive times. If they were to accomplish such a feat at the culmination of the qualifying campaign in September 2017, this current generation of players would write a new chapter in Iranian football history.
“Iran have had numerous talented players and coaches over the years, but they’ve never been to two World Cups in a row,” said Queiroz. “My mission and my dream is to make sure that they succeed. We have to avoid the mistakes of the past if we’re going to achieve that objective.”
Iran face Syria on 15 November, in a match that will mark the halfway stage on the journey to Russia 2018. If they were to secure their fourth win of the third round, they would put themselves in an excellent position, especially as three of the last five games are scheduled to be held in Tehran.
Queiroz had declared on a previous occasion that the Iranian team was a constant work in progress: “They get better every year. When I started working in Iran, we had just one player performing in Europe. Now we’ve got eleven of them.”
Back in the present, he concluded on a positive note: “We need to keep working hard. The time has come for us to achieve the impossible.” If Queiroz and Iran continue to put in the work and aim high, there is little doubt that they will continue their remarkable rise up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking in the years to come.