Speaking to FIFA.com almost a month ago, Hossein Shams, coach of the Iranian futsal team proclaimed, "Our initial goal is to make it through to the second phase. Everyone dreams of winning the World Cup, and we're no exception, but we can't start thinking about that until we reach the latter stages." If the statement sounded a little over-ambitious at the time, today, with the team one game away from a semi-final berth, it appears anything but.
It should be said, however, that the task awaiting Team Melli is far from easy, with victory over Chinese Taipei 2004 runners-up Italy required this Tuesday if they are to continue in the competition.
"I believe Brazil are still the best team out there, with Spain a very close second. Having played against those two already, I reckon that Italy aren't as tough a proposition," Iranian wide player Mohammad Taheri told FIFA.com. After drawing 3-3 with the reigning champions and narrowly going down 1-0 to the hosts, will Iran be up to the task on Tuesday?
Unfortunately for Iran, they will have to face the Azzurri without two of their key players, captain Vahid Shamsaee and Mohammad Keshavarz, both of whom are suspended. And while some feel this puts the Asian side at a serious disadvantage, Taheri is not one of them. "They are two very important players, but the guys replacing them will do a great job. We Iranians are well used to this type of situation. We thrive on adversity and always find the strength to keep going," says the 23-year-old with conviction.
Hossein Shams' team have already played a match at the Nilson Nelson Hall in the Brazilian capital, whereas their opponents will be making their debut there on Tuesday. And though any small advantage can be critical at this level, Taheri says that "against a team of the calibre of Italy, I don't think that will give us an advantage. Moreover, the Italians feel right at home here in Brazil."
A historic moment
Though appearing in his first FIFA Futsal World Cup, the Shahid Mansouri player has been performing like a veteran so far. With five goals to his name - two against Ukraine and one each against Spain, Uruguay and Libya - he is currently his side's joint top-scorer alongside Shamsaee. "It's been a magnificent experience because we've done it in the country that has given us this sport's most technically gifted players. On top of that, the public have been very affectionate towards us. It's all been wonderful," he says with a smile.
At Hong Kong 1992, Iran famously beat Italy 7-5 at the group phase en route to a semi-final appearance and eventual fourth-place finish. Taheri, however, is not placing much store on what happened back then. "Futsal was different in those days and nothing like as competitive as it is now. That's why I think our game against Italy will be the biggest in the history of Iranian futsal."
Lest anyone is still in any doubt about his side's ambition, the youngster finishes up by saying: "We came here to prove to ourselves that we could finish in the top four. However, now that we know just what we're capable of, we want to contest the final, and against Brazil."