It is with a sense of pride that Javad Nekounam pulls on the captain’s armband for Iran, while still ensuring that he maintains the greatest respect for those that preceded him. The 31-year-old is determined to meet future challenges head-on, starting with helping his country to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, in what would be Iran's fourth appearance on football’s greatest stage.
Now in his sixth season at Osasuna in Spain, the first-ever Iranian to ply his trade in La Liga spoke to FIFA.com ahead of his nation’s crunch Asian qualifying match with Bahrain. In the Team Melli dressing room, Nekounam has inherited the role of talismanic leader formerly held by players such as Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Daei, two veritable legends that the versatile midfield man holds in the highest esteem.
“Those two names are a shining light for us. They were top players who brought great quality and authority to the team. Their names really mean something – there’s no-one else like them,” Nekounam said firmly. “No younger player has yet stepped forward to fill their boots. We have good players, but to reach the heights that those players did, they have to show more consistency. It’s not about performing well one year and dropping off the radar the next. We’ll have to wait and see which players emerge over time,” he continued.
Since April 2011, the reins of the Iranian national side have been held by Portuguese tactician Carlos Queiroz, and his different approach has begun to have the desired effect on his charges. “The coach knows that we’re a pretty good team, in Asian terms. Whereas before we focused more on defending, Queiroz wants us to attack more. He believes that is Iran’s main strength, and that we can win more matches that way. He wants us to get into the box a bit more. Frankly, we’re really happy with our coach,” explained the Iran skipper.
Hand-in-hand with this new style of play has come a clear objective. “We’ve been putting in this hard work with the World Cup in mind. Our overall goal is to qualify for Brazil 2014. We’ve got some good individual players but we need to refine the way in which we play as a team. We don’t train together very often and it shows,” pointed out the player who started his career at Pas Tehran.
The coach knows that we’re a pretty good team, in Asian terms. Whereas before we focused more on defending, Queiroz wants us to attack more.
“This lack of time together and the big difference in the levels of experience in the squad may be noticeable, but Iran isn’t alone in having to deal with these types of problems,” said Nekounam. “We have a very young team, and we need time if we’re going to return Iran to its glory days,” he added, likely recalling his involvement in the Iran side that took part in Germany 2006, the last time that the Asians managed to qualify for FIFA’s flagship tournament.
With four points from two matches in Round Three of the Asian qualifying process, the Iranians currently lead Group E on goal difference from Bahrain, the team they are set to face in their third pool fixture on 11 October in Tehran. “Bahrain and Qatar are the biggest hurdles in our path. They’re two very similar sides, with good, on-form players. We’re aware that Bahrain will come to defend, are unlikely to attack, and will hope to go home with a point. But we need to win, and I think we’re capable of doing it if we play like we have in recent matches,” said the veteran international.
In their two previous group games, Nekounam and Co comfortably defeated Indonesia, but were then held to a draw in Qatar. “It’s a very difficult place to go, but we put in a good performance and when it came down it, a draw wasn’t a bad result. Picking up a point away from home is always useful,” he reflected.
Settled in Spain
In between national team stints, Nekounam continues to show his battling qualities in the Spanish league, a championship in which he has featured for five seasons. While he did not enjoy an easy start to his career abroad, as adjusting to a new culture, learning a different language and suffering an untimely injury all provided him with tough challenges, today the Iranian stalwart feels perfectly happy in Pamplona. “My team-mates helped me so much to adapt, and I’ll always be grateful to them for that. After a year interrupted by injury, I’m pretty happy now, because I really just wanted to play football for Osasuna,” he said.
Los Rojillos have now recovered from the footballing lesson they received a few weeks ago at the Camp Nou, where they had the misfortune to concede eight goals to a rampant Barcelona. “When they score an early goal, it’s very difficult to stop them. That’s when they start to pass, move and create chances. I don’t think there were really eight goals between the teams, but that kind of freak scoreline happens in football sometimes,” he noted. “It’s pretty obvious that Barcelona and Real Madrid will be fighting it out for first and second place, because they have the best players in the world. For the rest of us, it’s very difficult to put in a real title challenge,” the Iranian admitted.
What would therefore constitute a successful season for Osasuna? “We haven’t set any specific goals. We’re taking each game at a time, trying to get as high up the league table as possible. If we finish in the top five, great; if not, the top ten would also be good,” said Nekounam. The central midfielder, who had a short spell in the UAE before arriving on Spanish shores in 2006, does not feel tempted to experience other leagues, and instead foresees an eventual return to his homeland. “My future? If I’m not still playing here, I’ll go back home. When I retire, it’ll be to Iran – that much is certain,” he concluded.