Iran were under heavy pressure for long stretches of their opener with African champions Gambia, but cool-headed captain Payam Sadeghian did his level best to keep his side in the game. His patience, outstanding passing and killer instinct went a long way to seeing Iran roar to the top of Group C at this FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria.
"Honestly, we're not thrilled with the way we played against Gambia," Sadeghian told FIFA.com after a sumptuous lunch of Iranian delights prepared by the team's avuncular and rotund chef, also the team chef for Iran's seniors at the FIFA World Cup™ in Germany three years ago. "We didn't play to our full potential, but the result is exactly what we wanted, so we'll take it and try to get better next time."
Up next for the reigning Asian champions, who often looked second best against the nine-man Gambians, is a date with Colombia, who were impressive in their 2-1 win over the Dutch. "We had some difficulty with the Gambians because they were big and strong and even seemed a little bit older than us, but against Colombia it will be easier. We match up to them better," remarked the soft-spoken captain, high pitched voice and youthful features belying his steely presence on the pitch.
Sadeghian is no stranger to high-stress football, having already made his first-team debut with Esfahan-based club side Zob-Ahan and lining up in the 2009 Hazfi Cup win over Rah-Ahan. And when his chance to put his nervy team into the lead against Gambia arrived on the stroke of half-time, the experience and calm served him well. "I never expected the ball to come to me," he admitted with a smile, recalling the calamitous free-kick from goalkeeper Ousman Darboe that fell at his feet with nothing but an open net to shoot at. "But there was still some more to do, you know, I had to bend the ball around and inside the post. I was very excited to have put the team into the lead, but it was a very strange goal indeed."
Strange or not, the strike proved crucial as, even after they went down a man in the 33rd minute, the Gambians created more chances than Iran in the first half. Sadeghian displayed the prototypical captain's cool and he played a part in setting up the second goal, scored by Kaveh Rezaei six minutes from time to put the result beyond doubt. "It was our first match at a World Cup and we were feeling a lot of stress," added the 17-year-old withdrawn striker, who holds club mate and national team regular Mohammed Reza Khalatbari as a favourite player and respected mentor. "But we will play with more freedom in our next game against Colombia, and I think we will score more goals."
The captain, like his blustery and self assured coach Ali Doustimehr, is expecting more than just a few good results here in Nigeria. "When we came here to Nigeria we set as our goal a place in the semi-finals. I still think we can do that, and who knows, maybe when we're there we can imagine going one step farther."