Zob Ahan coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh has a date with destiny on Saturday as he takes his side to Tokyo for the final of the AFC Champions League against Korea Republic’s Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma.
Not since PAS Tehran FC back in 1993 have an Iranian team have been crowned Asian champions, although fellow countrymen Sepahan did reach the 2007 Champions League final, where they went down 3-1 over two legs to Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.
As fate would have it, Ebrahimzadeh was sitting on the bench of Zob Ahan’s city rivals Sepahan back then, as assistant to their Croatian head coach Luka Bonacic. And though they came off second best to the Japanese, the men from Isfahan at least had the consolation of claiming a place at the FIFA Club World Cup that year, becoming the first Iranian club to compete in the tournament.
On what will be his third visit to the Japanese capital and his first as coach, Ebrahimzadeh is hoping that his side, who incredibly have yet to win an Iranian league title, will allow him to sample the atmosphere at world football’s biggest club competition once more.
“I’ve said all along that we’re aiming for the Asian title and that our sights are set on a place at the Club World Cup,” says the 54-year-old Zob Ahan boss in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
Team spirit crucial
Having dubbed his side’s journey to Saturday’s final as an achievement in itself, Ebrahimzadeh is busy plotting the downfall of their Korean opponents. “We’ve watched two of their matches,” he says, “and we’ll need to study their style of play very closely. They play a fast game and have some very talented players in their ranks, although Dzenan Radoncic will be suspended for the match.”
One of the Iranian side’s main assets is their mental strength, and Ebrahimzadeh believes that belief in their own ability and the common bond between his players could prove vital come kick-off time in Tokyo.
“I think we have an excellent chance of winning the title,” he comments. “The players are in the right frame of mind and they all want to win. We’re a tight-knit unit and that’s what sets us apart from other teams, because there are no stars in this side and we’re all part of one big family. There’s a real team spirit here and there’s a special bond between us, a real sense of togetherness. I look upon them as my children.”
Zob Ahan showed their sense of conviction on an arduous journey to the their maiden final in the competition. After beating Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad to top spot in their group, the Iranians knocked out reigning Asian champions Pohang Steelers in the last eight before beating Al Hilal home and away in the semis.
“Every single game was tough,” says Ebrahimzadeh, recalling their testing passage to Tokyo. “We were the underdogs against Bunyodkor but still managed to beat them. Then we had to stand tall against Al Ittihad before knocking out the champions and beating Al Hilal, who are regarded as one of the strongest sides on the continent. No, we haven’t had any easy matches at all and we’ve had to battle every inch of the way to get here. That said, the match we’ve got coming up now will be the most difficult of the lot, without any shadow of a doubt. This is the last hurdle to winning the title.”
Today Tokyo, tomorrow the world?
Zob Ahan’s task is all the more daunting given eastern Asia’s recent supremacy in the Champions League, with Japanese and Koreans clubs having dominated the competition since 2006. “You can’t have the same teams winning all the time,” says their defiant coach. “We hope to be crowned champions and bring the cup back to the west.”
The Iranians will not be short of motivation, especially with a place at December’s FIFA Club World Cup waiting for the winners. As Ebrahimzadeh has no doubt informed his players, claiming that prize will respesent a big step forward in their footballing educations: “The Club World Cup is an exceptional event. To come up against different ways of playing the game and take on European and South American teams is an amazing thing for any player.”