Of the all the Asian nations eliminated from the race for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Iran's failure is surely the most unexpected. Boasting some of Asia's most promising young talents, a host of experienced campaigners and with the second highest quota of overseas-based stars, the Iranians became the underachievers of the region's qualifying competition.
Iran's South Africa 2010 quest was brought to an end in the closing matchday of Asia's qualifying final round, when they failed to defeat Korea Republic, while Saudi Arabia shared the spoils with Korea DPR in the other group extinguishing Team Melli's last flicker of hope. The results saw Korea DPR claim the coveted automatic berth with Saudi Arabia left with third place and in the play-off position, but Iran agonizingly one point short and empty-handed.
This was of course by no means the first time a team of collective talents have failed to find the results to match their skills. But for a side boasting some of the continent's most gifted players and spearheaded by two former AFC Players of the Year, anything short of an automatic qualifying spot was seen as a failure.
Many nations can point to a number of hard luck stories, but few can match Iran's catalogue of drama-charged efforts to reach the global showpiece over the past decade and a half. In their attempt to reach USA 1994 Iran were deprived of an automatic berth by Saudi Arabia, who ran out 4-3 winners in the decisive final match to book their debut appearance among the world's elite. Team Melli again choked on the big occasion eight years later, when they were inexplicably toppled by Bahrain in the closing match to gift the only spot to Saudi Arabia.
On both occasions Iran excelled in the early stages and entered the closing match with their destiny in their hands. Sandwiched between the two failures was, conversely, Iran's famous qualification for France 1998, when they made a miraculous recovery from two goals down with 20 minutes remaining to edge out Australia on away goals.
This year's qualifying campaign saw Iran struggling for consistency throughout with a series of lacklustre draws, under-performing to such an extent that they threw away a one-goal lead to lose 2-1 to Saudi Arabia and suffer a rare loss at the legendary Azadi Stadium. For many of their faithful, it was not only the unexpected results but also their below-par performances that left the team facing fierce criticism.
Reflection over failure
Following the final round 1-1 draw with Korea Republic, coach Afshin Ghotbi was at pains to point out the lack of thrust and drive in a game they needed to win. "We came here to get the three points but we played too conservatively after the first goal. In particular, the defensive line played too deep and Korea took advantage of it," Ghotbi stated immediately after the match.
After the dust had settled on the campaign, the former Persepolis boss claimed responsibility for the team's failure despite the fact he took over only a couple of months ago. "I take responsibility for the failure and apologize to the Iranian people," Ghotbi said recently. "Unfortunately, we had just nine minutes to qualify for South Africa's World Cup, but we lost the chance in such a short time," lamented Ghotbi in reference to Park Ji-Sung's 81st minute equalizer for the Koreans.
The fallout from the failed campaign is still being felt with Iran captain Mehdi Mahdavikia, a veteran of four FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, announcing his international retirement, alongside enigmatic midfielder Ali Karimi. "I always believe in young players and had already said that I will retire from international football if we fail to qualify for the World Cup," the 31-year-old Mahdavikia said, hinting that recruitment of young talent is crucial to Iran's rebuilding plan. "Iran will be playing in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers and I think it is the time for me to step aside to give a chance to the youngsters."