Iran were just eight minutes away from a place at the 19th FIFA World Cup™. However, an equaliser by Korea Republic’s Park Ji-Sung ultimately denied them – and snatched Korea DPR – a ticket to South Africa.
It was a bitter blow, but rather than mope in self-pity, Afshin Ghotbi has focused his charges on trying to atone for that heartbreak. Team Melli have already made good headway, winning all six of their friendlies in 2010, including away victories over China PR and the Taeguk Warriors in their last two outings. The former assistant coach of Korea Republic, who led Persepolis to the Iran Pro League title in 2008, has consequently had his contract renewed until after next year’s AFC Asian Cup.
That is a competition Ghotbi is determined to win. Another goal is to mastermind Iran’s qualification for Brazil 2014. The 46-year-old sat down with FIFA.com to discuss those two targets and his emerging stars ahead of the West Asian Football Federation Championship, which will begin on Friday.
FIFA.com: How do you rate the progress Iran have made over the past year?
Afshin Ghotbi: Iran have undergone a transformation, with a host of new talents combining with some veterans to inspire the national team to return to being one of Asia's best. We have improved our defense with tactical organisation and discipline, and this changed mentality, coupled with our pace and prowess in attack, has contributed to our good results so far this year. Our recent wins are just the beginning of the team’s bright future.
The current Team Melli looks rather different from the side that played in Asia’s final qualifying round for South Africa 2010, with several veterans having made way for new faces...
Having gone within eight minutes of qualifying for the World Cup, we thought it was time to build a new team. With the injection of new blood, there is competition for every position and the team has the perfect balance between youth and experience, with the average age of the team under 25 years old.
Ali Daei and Mehdi Mahdavikia were inspiration leaders for Iran. Who is going to follow in their footsteps?
We have different players providing leadership in various forms, but Javad Nekounam has proven to be a superb captain, providing the team with a role model both on and off the field.
Who are Iran's best prospects?
Iran has an enormous pool of promising talents. Ehsan Hajsafi, Karim Ansarifard and Milad Zanidpour, to name a few, represent the new generation of players who have a bright future.
Your aim is to win the AFC Asian Cup. Do you see it as a chance to revive Iran’s footballing fortunes?
Definitely, yes. Football plays a huge role in Iran and triumph at the Asian Cup would provide inspiration for Iranian people across the world.
What do you think of your group opponents, namely Korea DPR, Iraq and United Arab Emirates?
There are no easy opponents anymore in international football. The gap between Asian countries gets narrowed down with each competition, so we can take nothing for granted.
Do Ali Karimi and Hussein Kaebi have a chance of making it into your squad for the Asian Cup?
The doors are open to all players exhibiting the right form at club level, discipline on and off the field, and understanding of team spirit.
After the Asian Cup will come qualifying for Brazil 2014. How will you prepare the team for it?
With each match we are building towards 2014. So, we have already started the process. We hope an Asian Cup title will give Iranian football the confidence to live up to its true potential on the global stage.