Even with the legendary Ali Daei at the helm, Iran are currently facing up to one of the toughest periods in their history ahead of their next 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier against United Arab Emirates on 2 June.
Team Melli have been winless over the past ten months, their last success dating back to July 2007 when they defeated co-hosts Malaysia 2-0 in the final group match of that year's AFC Asian Cup. Or, to be exact, the Iranian faithful will have waited 314 days for a victory when the chance next presents itself in Iran's third preliminary match, a disappointing reality for a team that has captured the continental title three times and represented Asia in as many FIFA World Cups.
Iran's penalty shootout defeat by Korea Republic in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup 2007 after 120 goalless minutes proved to be the beginning of their seven-month drought, during which they drew against both Qatar and Costa Rica in friendlies before being held at home by a resilient Syria in the opening qualifying match for South Africa 2010, all without a single goal being scored.
Fittingly, it fell to Ali Daei - Iran's all-time leading scorer - to solve this particular problem, but in his first game in charge, Team Melli slumped to a 1-0 friendly defeat by Bahrain. The goals did finally come in Daei's next match in charge, but his joy was to be short-lived as Iran inexplicably threw away an early two-goal cushion in their second FIFA World Cup qualifier to draw 2-2 with hosts Kuwait.
Daei's failure to end Iran's winless spell should not, however, be interpreted as a sign that the Iranian Football Association made a wrong appointment. Daei, after all, had already made his mark as coach the year before, steering an unfancied Saipa to the Iranian league title. Indeed, only six weeks after Iran's tie against Kuwait, he guided Saipa through the AFC Champions League group stage to book an unlikely place in the last eight with a game to spare, further underlining his managerial capabilities.
"We played with great pride and we beat some of the best teams in west Asia," Daei said after Saipa sealed progression to the knockout stage. "I promised to be with Saipa until we finish in the Champions League."
Daei's recent success at the club level understandably provided his national team paymasters with new food for thought, and led to them offering this explanation for the disappointing performance against Kuwait.
"Coach Daei had only very short time to prepare the team so it is too premature to judge his work on results," Amirhossein Karimpour, an official from the Iranian FA, told FIFA.com. "As well as being one of world's all-time scoring greats, Daei has proved he is also a qualified coach with his good work with Saipa, so we don't have a single doubt that he will do his job well for the national team."
Top trio return
Iran's desperate search for their first win under Daei's reign will receive a timely boost in the team's next training camp with the return of their European-based trio of Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia, Hannover forward Vahid Hashemian and Osasuna star Javad Nekounam.
Mahdavikia, renowned for his defence-splitting passes, was ruled out for the game against Kuwait due to injury. With the playmaker fit and back pulling the strings in the middle of the park, Iran's chances of unlocking the UAE defence are sure to be increased considerably. Further enhancing the team's creativity will be Nekounam, whose tackling ability will also shore up their defence, while Hashemian's strength in the air is sure to give their Emirati rivals plenty of headaches.
"Mahdavikia has recovered and will be fit to play, while both Hashimian and Nekounam have been called up for the game against UAE," Karimpour confirmed. "But the training camp begins just a few days ahead of the game so the new squad will not be announced until then."