Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi is seeking to conclude his two-year tenure at the helm by taking Team Melli to glory at the forthcoming 2011 AFC Asian Cup. Despite their undoubted continental pedigree, Iran’s vast army of supporters have been forced to wait over three decades since their last Asian triumph.
Qatar 2011 provides the platform Iran needs to put the disappointment of failing to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in the past, with the highly-respected 46-year-old Ghotbi putting all his energies into achieving that aim. “As I have repeatedly stated to the media, my objective is to take Iran to the Asian title,” Ghotbi told FIFA.com in a recent interview.
“To achieve this, we need to unite for the common cause and compete as one nation. Team Melli belongs to all the Iranians around the globe and I believe our success will provide all our people with a source of inspiration and pride.”
Ghotbi’s confidence comes on the back of rapid progress Iran have made since the 46-year-old took charge midway through the failed qualification campaign for South Africa 2010. Ghotbi, assistant to Guus Hiddink with Korea Republic during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, has embarked on a concerted rebuilding process over the past 12 months. His policy reaped dividends as a new-look side won a series of high-profile friendlies, before finishing runners-up in October’s West Asian Football Federation Championship, in a run which including an impressive defeat of Asian champions Iraq in a group meeting.
Should they prevail at Qatar 2011, it will be Iran’s fourth Asian title but their first in 35 years. During their emergence as a continental power in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the West Asians took the Asian Cup by storm clinching three consecutive championships, before becoming the first west Asian nation to appear at a FIFA World Cup with a credible showing at Argentina 1978. Despite a seemingly endless production line of talent, Iran have failed to reach the final since 1976 despite finishing third place on four occasions.
Ghotbi, however, is under no illusion that achieving glory at the 16-nation tournament will come easily. “I believe every opponent comes to Doha with the hope of taking home the trophy,” he said of a tournament that includes the likes of Korea Republic, Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia. “There are no weak teams anymore in international football.”
Four years ago Iran suffered an early exit at the quarter-final stage but this time they will have a challenge to even repeat that feat in a group which includes United Arab Emirates, 2010 FIFA World Cup finalists Korea DPR and reigning champions Iraq. “Each game and group will present different challenges,” says Ghotbi. “But regardless of each respective opponent we will place our attention on our own tactical and physical preparation.”
And it is their opening fixture against the enigmatic Iraqis on 11 January which Ghotbi is particularly relishing. “We beat them in the WAFF competition in October but it is already history. Both teams will be highly prepared for this Asian Cup clash. As history shows, whenever the two neighbouring countries have met it is a classic, and I expect a fantastic game again this time.”
The last time Iran impressed at the continental stage was in UAE 1996, with the legendary Ali Daei topping the tournament scoring chart and Khodadad Azizi crowned Most Valued Player as Iran finished third. Ghotbi is now anticipating new stars to shine brightly at Qatar 2011. “We need players that inspire one another in various forms. I hope the Asian Cup will offer a great opportunity for fresh talents to shine in Iranian football. God knows, we need new heroes for Iran if we are to return to the World Cup at Brazil 2014.”