Had Iran made the breakthrough of progressing beyond the group stages at FIFA World Cup™ Germany 2006, it would have certainly come as an immense boost for football development across the country. Nevertheless, the disappointment of their first phase exit sparked further passion of Team Melli, who have shown tremendous determination to rebuild their lost credibility.
Under new coach Amir Ghalenoiee, the team came back to top their confederation in the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking last November, surpassing the Asian Football Confederation's latest member Australia. Thereafter, the new-look Iran have not looked back, maintaining their continental supremacy in the global rankings.
With the AFC Asian Cup 2007 just around the corner, the three-time champions have another perfect opportunity to underline their status as one of the strongest sides on the continent by adding a fourth crown to their collection and securing a place at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup .
Replacing a legend
One of the biggest problems facing coach Ghalenoiee will be filling the void vacated by the legendary Ali Daei, who is no longer part of the international set-up. The iconic 38-year-old netted in excess of a century of goals for his country to establish himself as one of the sport's all-time scoring greats, and he proved the driving force behind the team's success on numerous occasions throughout his career. His exclusion from the national team brought a memorable era to an end, something which his former team-mate Ghalenoiee readily accepts.
"Ali Daei is a legendary figure for Iranian football whose contribution will be remembered," said the coach in a recent press conference in Tehran. "It proves hard to decide who will wear his No10 jersey and I would like to see the jersey retired if the Iranian Football Association regulations allow."
Despite being shorn of Daei's presence, the attack-conscious Team Melli are in no shortage of good strikers . Fortunately for the team and their passionate followers, a host of established marksmen look capable of filling the gap, with Hannover 96 hotshot Vahid Hashemian leading the likes of Reza Enayati, Hossein Badamaki and Mehdi Rajabzadeh for the honour.
Iran will open their 2007 Asian Cup campaign against central Asian force Uzbekistan in Group C, which also features the previous edition's runners-up China and co-hosts Malaysia. With a testing group assignment ahead, coach Ghalenoiee has arranged a series of friendlies, including a re-match with Mexico, whom they lost 3-1 to at Germany 2006, in Mexico City on 2 June.
Preparations aside, the team's success will rest largely on the shoulders of their European-based contingent . Indeed, the likes of Hamburg playmaker Mehdi Mahdavikia, Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi and Hashemian formed an experienced core which thrust them to qualification for last year's FIFA World Cup. The group has since been extended, with Javad Nekounam joining CA Osasuna and Andranik Teymourian becoming the first Iranian player to play in the English Premiership following his move to Bolton Wanderers.
With such a prominent cast of players, Iran have been tipped as the favorites to advance from their first phase group. Mahdavikia, however, has warned his colleagues not to underestimate their adversaries. "Uzbekistan are dangerous rivals as they play a style similar to that of European sides and China have had a cutthroat rivalry with Iran in the past," said the Iran skipper. "Malaysia will also provide fierce opposition as hosts."