Iran have not conceded a single goal at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009, 270 straight minutes of international-standard football. One of the main reasons for their stinginess in defence is centre-back Ali Goudarzi, whose athleticism, deft positioning and last-gasp tackling have helped the Persians to claim first place in Group C in Calabar.
"I am happy with my performances here so far," Goudarzi, who captained the team for the last 20 minutes of the game with Colombia and the entire match with the Netherlands, told FIFA.com over a lunch of Iranian delicacies at the team's hotel. "But, really, our whole team helps to defend our goal, from the front to the back. It is an entire team performance."
The Iranians arrived here in Nigeria with a fearsome reputation after edging Korea Republic to be crowned Asian U-16 champions last year. At those continental finals in Tashknt, their rearguard was just as ferocious as now, with the young Team Melli conceding just three goals in their six games at the continental finals.
"I have played with these defensive team-mates for a long time for both club and country," added Goudarzi, who forms the core of the Iranian national team efence here in west Africa along with Zob-Ahan club mates Bahman Maleki and Iman Shirazi. "For instance, I have been playing with [Iman] Shirazi for nearly five years. It makes a huge difference in our back line to have three players playing together at the same club. I know what they are going to do, where they will be, and how they want the ball. The importance of this cannot be underestimated in our team.
Playing in Group C alongside a depleted Gambia, underwhelming Netherlands and against impressive Colombia amid a teaming rainstorm that neutralised the South Americans' talented midfielders, Iran's defence will be up against a far sterner test when they take on Uruguay in the round of 16 on 5 November in Calabar. The Celeste managed only to sneak into the knockout stages, finishing third in Group F with one win and a draw, but they have in their side one of the top attacking players of these finals in Atletico Madrid starlet Sebastian Gallegos.
Grudging respect for Uruguay
Even so, Gouzardi - who took over the captain's armband from dropped attacker and club teammate Payam Sadeghian toward the end of the group campaign in what he calls "the greatest of honours" - is not fretting overly much. "We know Uruguay have some very good attacking players; if they didn't they wouldn't be here," admitted the sturdy back, however grudgingly. "But if they were as good as us, they would have finished top of their group instead of third," he added with a devilish grin.
Just before lunch at the hotel, balanced of the banks of the mighty Calabar River, the Iranian team could be heard performing their daily prayers. The sounds of their synchronised chanting filled the entire hotel and echoed through its modern, open hallways. "We pray to God every day as a team," says the defender, adding that the side dutifully perform their prayers five times each day. "Without his help we would not be able to do what we do on the pitch, and it also helps to bring us together as a team, as one."
The Iranians, in truth, will need more than faith when they take on the South Americans in an all-or-nothing clash. But if they are able to keep their stingy defensive record alive - and grab a goal or two in the bargain - they might just be able to push their way farther still into this U-17 showpiece. "I think we can reach the semi-finals," the confident and competent young player announces by way of conclusion. "This was our goal when we came here and once we've done that, we hope to go one step further and become world champions."