Iran look to next generation
Iran set out from Frankfurt for the long journey home on Friday after bowing out of the FIFA World Cup after the first round.
Losses to Mexico and Portugal in their opening two games had left Branko Ivankovic's side with no chance of advancing from Group D and the subsequent point claimed from a draw with Angola was no consolation at all. Now that the curtain has fallen on their third FIFA World Cup campaign, there is a tangible sense of disappointment about the team's overall performance and early exit.
There had been genuine promise before the finals. Under the tutelage of their Croatian coach Ivankovic , Iran had some good results in their warm-up matches, beating Costa Rica and Bosnia-Herzegovina before earning a respectable draw with Croatia.
Media and supporters in Iran had high hopes and coach Ivankovic underlined his optimism when when speaking to FIFAworldup.com prior to the tournament. "Our main aim was to qualify for the final stages of the tournament, which we have already achieved. Our next target is to make history by qualifying for the second round." Ambitious words without doubt, and not entirely without reason.
This attack-minded team inclded Bayern Munich's Ali Karimi together with three other Bundesliga-based players in Mehdi Mahdavikia, Vahid Hashemian and Ferydoon Zandi. Lest we forget, there was also the talismanic and evergreen striker Ali Daei.
However, Iran's preparations for the tournament did not run smoothly with Ivankovic's planning interrupted by a combination of injuries to key players. When the tournament began, Karimi was not at his best while Zandi failed to appear until Iran's fate was sealed. Another factor was that the Iranians appeared hampered by their lack of experience on the biggest stage.
Against Mexico , they seemed to be two entirely different teams before and after the interval. In the first half, they harried their opponents with bold attacking moves, cancelled out the Mexicans' opener through Yahya Golmohammadi and created many more goal opportunities than the 1-1 half-time score suggested. In the second half, however, one lapse of concentration by the Iran defence turned the tide, as Mexico seized their chance to score two goals in quick succession during a disastrous three-minute spell.
"Some of our players need a little more international experience, and that was evident today with the defensive errors that we made," reflected Ivankovic in the aftermath of that defeat. Six days later, Iran impressed in patches against Portugal , but their opponents were more convincing over the 90 minutes and ran out deserving 2-0 winners.
The final match against Angola appeared to be ending in ignominy when the Africans took the lead but Sohrab Bakhtiarizadeh's header earned a 1-1 draw to at least give them something to show for their efforts.
Reasons for optimism
In the end, Iran came up well short of their stated goal of making the last 16. In fact they were unable to improve on their last FIFA World Cup appearance, at France 98, when they won a famous victory against the USA.
Despite the outcome here, the outgoing Ivankovic believes Iran's squad in Germany included young players who are "very gifted, have bags of potential and are the future of Iranian football" - among them 20-year-old defender Hossein Kaabi and 23-year-old midfielder Andranik Teymourian, both of whom appeared in all three matches.
During five years at the helm Ivankovic succeeded in promoting a crop of youngsters from the U-23s and when he says he has "given Iran a team for the future", his is not a lone voice. Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari spoke in glowing terms of the Iranians after Portugal's win in Frankfurt, saying: "They have very good players, they are physically very strong and very tall. They will become the most important team in their region."
Ivankovic may have departed but whoever takes the reins, Iran should continue to make progress. The final word went to commanding central defender Rahman Rezaei, who looked to the future when he said: "The World Cup was not a pleasing experience for our young players, but now we have time to prepare and do it all over again in four years time."