Mohammad Keshavarz was just ten years old when Golden Shoe winner Saeid Rajabi Shirazi helped Iran to fourth place at the FIFA Futsal World Cup Hong Kong 1992, their highest-ever finish. Now, two decades on at Thailand 2012, Keshavarz is captain of the national team and, after a successful group stage campaign, hopes to emulate Iran’s past glory.
History is not on his side. Having failed to make it past the first round three times in a row, Iran finally made it through to the second round at Brazil 2008 only to be denied a semi-final spot by Italy on goal difference. However, speaking to FIFA.com, Keshavarz revealed that Iran have been engaged in a long-term rebuilding process since 2004 and he is optimistic these efforts will bear fruit in Thailand.
The 30-year-old defender, voted Asian Player of the Year in 2011, said: “We're what you could call a work-in-progress. In 2004, we didn’t get past the group stage, then in 2008 we played a bit better and qualified for the second round. We’re gradually improving and I expect we’ll play better in Thailand than we did in Brazil.”
Keshavarz didn't manage an appearance at Chinese Taipei 2004, but he has many memories of Brazil, not all of them happy ones. In the second round in 2008, he was sent off against Ukraine to miss the decider against Italy, which ended in a 5-5 draw.
What I’m achieving here in Thailand, the success I’m seeing, is the result of all the hard work we’ve put in over the last eight years.
Four years on, the memory has lost some of its sting: “I can’t remember anything worse happening to me, but I’m over it now and it’s a reminder not to make the same mistake this time round. I have to give my very best for my national team.”
His captaincy is clearly based around learning from experience, good and bad. Turning to his side’s early progress in the tournament, the man who takes Spanish star Torras as his role model is reflective: “Everyone has tended to say that we play our best against stronger teams but our standard drops off when the opponents are weaker. That said, against Morocco and Panama we were thinking about getting the three points, not racking up massive scores.”
With their qualification from the group stage secured, Iran’s next challenge is their first Round of 16 match against Colombia on 11 November. The Iranian captain anticipates a tough encounter, given the South Americans' rock-solid defensive display in their final group F match against Russia.
“It will be a difficult game,” Iran’s elder statesman explained. “We don’t know much about Colombia and we’ve never faced them before. What I do know is that we will do our best to continue our winning ways at the tournament.”
Although his ultimate ambition is to make it to the semi-finals, he is justifiably proud of making it to his third FIFA Futsal World Cup finals: “I am most proud of the games I’ve played at the World Cup. To be in the squad for this tournament three times is the pinnacle of my football career.”
“I’ve come of age with this team,” he concluded: “I’ve trained hard in order become the best player in Iran. What I’m achieving here in Thailand, the success I’m seeing, is the result of all the hard work we’ve put in over the last eight years.”
The ten-year-old Keshavarz could not have dreamed of all he would go on to achieve, but all these years later Iran’s captain wants only one thing: to take his team as far as they can go at Thailand 2012.