European-based stars figured prominently for Iran on the road to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, with the likes of Hamburg midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia, Hannover 96 hotshot Vahid Hashemian and Kaiserslautern playmaker Ferydoon Zandi all instrumental during Team Melli's successful qualifying campaign. Fast forward to the present day and coach Carlos Queiroz has spared no effort in scouring the globe for talent capable of shoring up his squad as Iran seek a return to the global extravaganza at Brazil 2014.
Once a nation boasting Asia's highest quota of overseas-based players, recent years have seen few Iranians make high-profile moves beyond their nation’s borders, with Osasuna man Javad Nekounam a notable exception. Desperate to enhance his line-up with more European-based players, Queiroz first targeted the emerging duo of Wolfsburg forward Ashkan Dejagah and Belgium-based striker Reza Ghoochannejhad.
"We wish we could include them for this camp," he told FIFA.com earlier this year prior to their most recent qualifier against Qatar. "Although it has proved very difficult for us, I am confident we can at least secure the services of one of them."
The Iranian fans really deserve qualification because they are so passionate, and love this game, football, so much.
The Portuguese manager lived up to his promise with the successful recruitment of Dejagah. And his efforts paid immediate dividends with the 25-year-old netting a brace on his international debut as Iran drew 2-2 with Qatar to progress as group winners. While Dejagah’s selection initially proved his overseas vision right, the globe-trotting coach went on to elaborate why he views European experience as important.
"Europe's advantage lies not only in areas like financial resources, but also the ability and capacity to provide very high standards and competition," the former Real Madrid and Portugal boss said. "All competitions in Europe, of either national team level or club level, have reached a level far above the other continents. Even the South American club competition is far away from European levels. To make the players develop it is not only about coaching and training, but about the competition that Europe can offer."
Queiroz, of course, is by no means the first Iran coach aware of how important European experience can be in Asian qualifying for the FIFA World Cup. In guiding Team Melli to Germany 2006, Croatian Branko Ivankovic spent months travelling between Iran and Germany as he coaxed German-born Zandi into joining his squad, while persuading Hashemian to end a three-year self-imposed exile and return to the national team.
The reward for Ivankovic was soon evident. While Zandi became an integral part in the starting line-up, Hashemian eclipsed even striking legend Ali Daei by establishing himself as the team’s new talisman, scoring vitals goals which helped seal qualification.
Taking heart from the previous experience and boosted by Dejagah’s success, Queiroz has made up his mind to further enhance Iran’s European-based contingent. Amongst the fresh faces is Swedish-based Omid Nazari, who has been selected in the 24-man squad for Sunday’s qualifying game against Uzbekistan and the match in Qatar nine days later. The Angelholms midfielder, though, has yet to be cleared to play for the national team and as a result, his expected debut in last Sunday’s international against Albania, which Iran lost by a solitary goal, failed to materialise.
Regardless of the squad’s final composition heading into the final stage of qualifying, Queiroz believes his side are worthy of a place at Brazil 2014. “The Iranian fans really deserve qualification because they are so passionate, and love this game, football, so much,” he said. “When you have 78 million football fans - those are the countries who deserve to be at the World Cup.”