When the fourth round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ get underway in June, Iran will be doing all they can to grab one of the two Group A qualifying slots and guarantee their place at the finals.
The responsibility for realizing this dream rests on the shoulders of the young men who will be representing their country, key amongst the group will be 28-year-old forward Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, who plies his trade for United Arab Emirates side Al Wasl under the watchful eye of legendary coach Diego Maradona.
Speaking to FIFA.com, Khalatbari discussed his team’s Asian qualifying campaign and their chances of booking a ticket to Brazil.
Making the finals
Long considered one of the giants of Asian football, Iran made their first FIFA World Cup appearance at Argentina 1978 though they had to wait another twenty years until their next showing at France 1998. Since then Team Melli have been somewhat hit and miss, failing to qualify for the finals of either Korea/Japan 2002 or South Africa 2010.
With Germany 2006 their last appearance on football’s greatest stage, the Iranians are determined not to miss out this time. Qualification at all costs is their motto and on paper at least their chances look good, the squad boasting a mix of exciting domestic talent and the skill and experience of seasoned overseas professionals.
It is this experience that proves its worth in a high-pressure environment where every point is worth its weight in gold.
“We missed the tournament in South Africa,” Khalatbari explained. “I remember that we missed out on qualification for the finals or even the chance to enter the Asian play-offs by just one point.”
That failure, though hard to cope with, served its purpose: “We’ve learnt our lesson now and our top priority is qualifying directly for the Brazil 2014 finals from Group A. We’ve been given a chance and we’re not going to let it go. We’ll fight hard every single game, home and away, and we’ll stay positive, too. Football’s a funny game and sometimes it can be hard on those who lack luck in the big matches.”
Confident but cautious
Iran have truly earned their place in Group A alongside Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon and now Team Melli have made it to the fourth and potentially final round they are not about to take their opponents lightly.
Khalatbari is realistic but wary: “We know that Korea Republic and ourselves are favourites to qualify for the finals because we’ve both appeared in World Cups before, but that won’t mean much when the whistle blows.”
“History doesn’t matter now,” he added. “If a side gets to this stage then they have proved themselves and we respect all our opponents. We will just look to play to our strengths, to rely on our experience and the fans’ support to win us the points. If all goes according to plan then we will qualify for the finals, but nothing will happen if we don’t make the effort.”
As Khalatbari sees it, the fact that Uzbekistan, Lebanon and Qatar have never reached the finals of a FIFA World Cup is hardly relevant at all. “All the teams have changed these days,” he explained. “Recently in Asia there has been a huge leap in quality and sides are getting results they would never have dreamed of before.”
The third round of Asian qualifiers was a case in point: “There were some real surprises in that round. It taught us to keep our guard up and never assume there’s such a thing as an easy game.”
Getting better all the time
In its constant quest to maintain Iran’s status as a leading force in the Asian game, the country’s football association has once again signed up a European coach for their qualifying campaign.
The last two times Iran qualified for the finals of a FIFA World Cup they were led by Croatians, with Tomislav Ivic at the helm during France 1998 and Branko Ivankovic taking them to Germany 2006. This time round it is the turn of the highly experienced Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz, formerly of Manchester United, Real Madrid and the Portuguese national team, and the side’s excellent third round results suggest the new man is paying dividends.
Khalatbari, no stranger to legendary coaches himself, is full of praise. “Queiroz needs no introductions from me,” said the forward who plays under Diego Maradona at Al Wasl. “He’s highly experienced and in my view one of the best coaches out there. Since he has taken over he has introduced new training techniques and improved the team’s performance.”
“The players work hard to learn from him,” said Khalatbari. “We try to carry out his plans on the pitch and I reckon our results so far show we’re getting better. In the eight qualifiers we’ve played we have scored 22 goals and only conceded five. That is an excellent record and I hope we can carry this form into the fourth round.”
Realizing the dream
Participating in the finals of a FIFA World Cup is the dream of every footballer and Khalatbari and his team-mates are no different. The 28-year old was not part of the squad that went to Germany in 2006 but now he has the chance to realize the dream for himself.
“Everyone wants to play at a World Cup,” Khalatbari said, “and I may not get another chance. Along with my team-mates I’m going to be doing all I can to make the dream come true. It’s a huge honour to represent your country at the biggest football tournament there is.”
The striker is certainly an integral part of Queiroz’s plans. He has taken the field in every single game under the Portuguese maestro’s stewardship, either in the starting line-up or as a substitute. More than most, then, his chances of making it to Brazil 2014 are in his own hands.