New Iranian coach Afshin Ghotbi has landed in a role that allows little scope for error. With just six points accrued from five matches to date in Asia's final round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Team Melli lie perilously close to elimination. Languishing in fourth spot in Group B, Iran are five points off frontrunners Korea Republic, and four points behind both Korea DPR and Saudi Arabia who jointly occupy the second automatic qualifying berth.
The challenges ahead are formidable for Ghotbi and his charges, with the team facing a congested schedule over the coming fortnight. On Saturday they face second-placed Korea DPR in Pyongyang, before returning to Tehran for a date with the already-eliminated United Arab Emirates four days later. Then on 17 June comes a potentially decisive closing match as Iran facing a daunting trip away to Korea Republic.
With just three matches remaining there is no margin for error if Iran are to qualify for a successive FIFA World Cup. Despite the daunting task at hand, Ghotbi is confident of achieving his mission. "When I was handed the job of coaching Persepolis a couple of years ago, I stated in my first press conference that I would lead the club to an Iranian championship," Ghotbi said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "I did the same when I was named coach of Iran by announcing that I would take our team to the World Cup."
Ghotbi realized his goal with Persepolis by taking the Tehran giants to their eighth Iranian title last season, but despite debuting in the international sphere as head coach, Ghotbi believes that qualification is a question of "how" not "if".
"The Iran team is oozing quality from every pore and we have so many talented players. We have the strengths to play against any team in Asia and win," says the self-assured Ghotbi, who only assumed the reigns of the national side a little over a month ago. The 45-year-old's first match at the helm was a 1-0 loss to China earlier this week.
The key in international competition is building momentum, and the team with the stronger mentality and greater confidence will definitely enjoy the better chances to win,
The most urgent task according to Ghotbi is to rebuild the team's confidence following a 2-1 defeat at the hands of regional rivals Saudi Arabia in their last qualifier, a result which cost predecessor Ali Daei his job. "The key in international competition is building momentum, and the team with the stronger mentality and greater confidence will definitely enjoy the better chances to win. So my job is to organize the players in a way which best suits them and allows me to get the best out of them."
Ghotbi will undoubtedly draw inspiration and knowledge from previous roles assisting the likes of Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek with Korea Republic. "I was fortunate to have worked with some of the world's top managers and I have learned a great deal in coaching know-how."
"Coaching is a job which involves considerable planning and managing in more than just one field. Guiding a team to success is not just training and playing but it is also about medical treatment, logistic preparation and building a harmonious atmosphere where everyone is pushing in the same direction."
Ghotbi is under no illusions about the challenges ahead in the remaining games, particularly the key battles against the group's two leading teams from the Korean peninsula. "North Korea showed they can be tough opponents as they have outplayed several teams. But we have players of better qualities and I hope we can repeat the victory we made in Pyongyang in qualifying for Germany 2006," said Ghotbi, referencing a critical Iranian 2-0 win in Pyongyang during the last FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
Should Iran take maximum points against both Korea DPR and UAE, Ghotbi's side will be in a strong position to take one of the group's two qualifying spots ahead of the final match against Korea Republic. "It would be ideal if South Korea will have already qualified when we meet them. But the importance is not about how the opponents play but about how we perform. If we can keep playing well, we can achieve our main goal."