Iran’s road to the Round of 16 here at the U-17 finals in UAE was paved with defence. Scoring only three times in their three section games, the Persians have a clear tactical scheme. “We do everything we can to make sure we don’t let the opponents in,” captain and centre-back Majid Hosseini told FIFA.com about his side’s stingy stance.
But Hosseini knows better than anyone what awaits him in the first knockout round in Al Ain City: free-scoring Nigeria, a team as obsessed with attacking as the Iranians are with defending. “My attack is blistering,” was what the Golden Eaglets’ coach Manu Garba had to say before even kicking off here in the Emirates. And their 4.6 goals per game average shows he wasn’t just boasting. “We can destroy any team on our day.”
Iran undoubtedly have one of the best defenders of the tournament in Hosseini. Tall and quick of mind, the Saipa FC man is the general of a team that keeps it tight at the back and only rarely, at specific and carefully chosen moments, raids forward. He is vocal on the pitch, pivoting nimbly to adjust to situations as they arise, and he inspires his mates with his actions and his bravery in the danger-zone. He plays like a leader and he talks like one too.
But his forehead wrinkles when Nigeria’s 14 goals so far are mentioned. Hosseini’s face turns from that of spotty teenager to a worried and wizened old man when he considers the west Africans, three-time U-17 world champions. “It will be the hardest game so far for us; we can have no illusion about it,” he said of the Nigerians, who are rivaled only by Brazil for their attacking ability and, in Kalechi Iheanacho and Success Isaac, have two of the best strikers in the world for their age.
“Nigeria are a very strong team,” the Iran captain added, looking intently at his translator who turned his Persian into English. “We know about their attack. We know that they only need one second to hurt you, to score a goal from nothing. We know all of this,” he said, before pausing and putting a hand on the translator’s shoulder, looking into his eyes and making a point clearly and slowly: “But we have our strengths too.”
Switching the conversation from Nigeria’s varied attack, their dizzying brand of Total Football that’s been a delight for fans and a nightmare for opposition defenders, the Iran captain speaks of his team as a unit. And while Mostafa Hashemi and Yousef Seyyedi have scored two of the best goals at these these finals, individuals are spurned for the collective in the Iranian cause.
“Everybody in the team acts as a defender and when we do go forward we go forward as one,” said the 17-year-old. “This is one of the secrets of our success. Our defenders, all of us, are close friends and we support each,” he added about the esprit de corps in the side. “When we get into trouble, there’s always someone to help out.”
Freedom meets form in desert duel
And while Nigeria’s coach gives his players what he calls “a special freedom,” Iran’s stern-looking boss Al Doustimehr gives his team orders. “We listen to our coach because by listening to him we have arrived here at the World Cup, and now into the knockout rounds,” said Hosseini, his mates waiting for him in a pack near the team bus. “Our coach will look at the Nigeria tapes and he will tell us what to do. And if we’re smart, we’ll listen.”
Few who have seen Group F toppers Nigeria in action will hold out much hope for Iran, who’ve never gone past the last 16 at a U-17 World Cup. But captain Hosseini isn’t bothered by being underdog and his confidence in his own ability – and his team-mates – is strong. His thoughts even go beyond the Nigerians. “Our goal is the last four,” he said. “We outlined this before the tournament started and we can still do it.”
First they will have to find a way to neutralise one of the best attacking teams the U-17 World Cup has ever seen. The captain’s mind turns to his home country for the kind of backing-up he preaches in his team, but on a larger scale. “We’ve felt positive energy coming from home,” he said, his eyes turning glassy with emotion. “We want to make the Iranian people happy and we’ll give everything we have against Nigeria to do it.”
Whether that will be enough for the brave Iranians will be only be known at the Khalifia bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday night, when two contrasting styles and temperaments collide in the desert.