The bracket of Asian sides whose results have not lived up to their supporters' expectations certainly includes Iran. Of the Asian nations, only Australia can boast more players representing European clubs, and Iran undeniably possess one of the region's most talented squads. However, despite this exodus, Team Melli have failed to make an impact on both the continental and global stages since their 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ campaign, when they beat USA 2-1 in one of the most memorable matches in their history.
Having won three Asian titles during the 1960s and 1970s, Iran failed to build on their France 1998 success, failing to qualify for Korea/Japan 2002 following a two-legged playoff defeat by Republic of Ireland. They did reach the FIFA World Cup once again in 2006 under the tutelage of Branko Ivankovic, but a lack of consistency cost them and they were eliminated from the group stage following losses to Portugal and Mexico.
The disappointment triggered a revolution within the team, with the likes of scoring legend Ali Daei and defender Yahya Golmohammadi making way for younger players and the home-grown Amir Ghalenoei arriving in the hot-seat. Nevertheless, Iran's fortunes were not instantly revived by the managerial change as they suffered a 4-0 defeat by Mexico in a friendly in the run-up to the AFC Asian Cup 2007, where they were eliminated in the quarter-final by Korea Republic on penalties.
The quarter-final finish was a disappointment for the perennial contenders. As a result, Ghalenoei stepped down, leaving the team's future uncertain ahead of their bid for South Africa 2010. The search for a new coach proved to be a saga which lasted over six months, until the duties fell on the shoulders of Spaniard Javier Clemente in February 2008. However, the former Spain and Serbia boss's tenure ended even before it began. The next to take over was former ace Ali Daei, whose first match in charge saw Iran throw away a two-goal lead to draw against Kuwait 2-2 in the second contest in Asia's third stage of qualifying for South Africa 2010. The next match was just as frustrating, as the Iranians were unable to score against the UAE, having to content themselves with another 0-0 draw at home.
Team Melli are never short of talent, though, and despite the retirement of Daei, one of the world's all-time scoring greats, the football-mad country still has a strong pool from which they can select. Germany-based Mehdi Mahdavikia is the perfect replacement to fill the void left by left by Daei as the team's new leader, while both Javed Kazemian and Reza Enayati can provide alternative option up front. The midfield is the strongest part of the attack-conscious outfit, with former AFC Player of the Year Ali Karimi creating chances alongside Bolton Wanderers' Andranik Teymourian.
Yet despite qualifying comfortably for the final round of Asian qualifiers, claiming top place in Group 5, a poor start to this decisive stage - with just one win from their opening five fixtures - cost Daei his job as coach on 29 March 2009. German Erich Rutemoller took the reigns in an interim capacity before a permanent successor to Daei was announced just over a week later.
Mohammad Mayeli Kohan returned to the role but the former Iran boss, who failed to guide Team Melli to an automatic qualifying spot for France 1998, lasted just two weeks before resigning. The vacancy was immediately filled by Afshin Ghotbi, who has significant international experience assisting the likes of Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek with Korea Republic. At domestic level the 45-year-old Ghotbi has worked with Suwon Bluewings and LA Galaxy, and most recently Persepolis, who he led to the Iranian League title last season.
Despite the short period he had been given to prepare the team, Ghotbi did showcase his coaching abilities as Iran drew Korea DPR before defeating UAE 1-0 to salvage a glimmer of hope. Needing an away win against Korea Republic to secure at least a third-place finish, Iran were denied the three points with Park Ji-Sung canceling Mashoud Shojaei's goal with a late strike to see the game end 1-1. Their disappointing performance was not helped by a lack of luck as Saudi Arabia and Korea DPR shared spoils in the other game, a result which sent the Koreans through, left the Sons of Deserts with a play-off, while dooming Team Melli to elimination.