Iran are one of the strongest sides in Asia and among the favourites to make it through to the finals of Brazil 2014. Yet Team Melli's failure to clear the final hurdle in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010 leaves a question mark over their ability to finish the job.
With two matches played in the fourth round of Asian qualifiers, Iran are second-placed in Group A but there is still a way to go before they can claim a berth in the finals. If they are to achieve their goal they will need their star players to be on song, none more so than midfield sensation and team captain Javad Nekounam.
Nekounam sat down with FIFA.com to talk about Iran’s qualifying campaign and his six-year stint at Spanish club Osasuna.
A long road
Round four of qualifying began well enough for the Iranians with a 1-0 win over Uzbekistan, followed by a relatively disappointing goalless draw against Qatar in Tehran.
Nekounam is under no illusions about the challenges ahead: “We know very well that the qualifiers are a long process and it’s a rocky road to the finals. Our aim is to do the best we can to win and get enough points to secure one of the two qualifying slots for Brazil.”
“We came away with an important away victory against Uzbekistan,” he went on. “But we only drew with Qatar at home. It goes to show there’s no predicting results. Who may qualify should only become clear when more than half the games have been played.”
Nekounam is frank about Iran’s chances: “On paper no-one has a better chance but things can change out on the pitch,” he said. “We’ve learnt a lot from past qualifiers and we will have to expend a lot of energy and effort if we are to get the points and achieve our goal. Iran are capable, though, and we’ll be looking to qualify.”
Nekounam was in the side that made it to Germany 2006, the third and last Team Melli to have reached the finals of a FIFA World Cup™. He has many memories of his experiences: “Playing in a World Cup is every player’s dream and I was so proud to play for the national team and represent my country at the greatest tournament of all.
“It’s an incomparably sweet feeling and, since I know what it’s like, I must try to pass that onto the new players. I talk to them about the significance of playing in a World Cup and the feelings of national pride it evokes to motivate them to try even harder.”
The secret of success
In recent years an ascendant Iran have proved more than a handful for their Asian rivals. For Nekounam, this rise can be dated to when, “my generation came of age after the AFC Asian Cup in 2000. We gained a lot of experience, playing in the 2002 and 2006 editions of the Asian Games and in between them, the AFC Asian Cup in 2004, which we had a chance to win but in which we only managed third place.”
The experience was invaluable: “What this meant was that we had continuous exposure to competitive football, which gave us the strength and experience we needed to qualify for Germany 2006.
“Looking back, I think the majority of our players were well served by playing in professional leagues and tough tournaments, not to mention an excellent coach. For all these reasons I reckon we have a good shot at qualifying again.”
The Spanish game
The Iranian captain spent six years of his professional career in Pamplona, playing for local side Osasuna, and he has many happy memories of that time: “It was an excellent experience on every level. I faced a lot of difficulties in the beginning trying to acclimatise and adjust to the style of play in Spain. The challenge I had was to prove that an Iranian player had what it takes to compete in the strongest league in the world.”
“Everyone supported me,” he recalled. “Especially when I got injured in my second season there. When I returned for my third season things improved dramatically. I scored nine goals and was named the best midfielder in La Liga. We used to scrap to stay up but now we were rising up the rankings. Last season we were one place away from reaching the Europa League. It was an excellent way to end my time at a club where I learnt so much.”
Asked about highlights from his career so far, his reaction was immediate: “Being chosen as the best midfielder in the Spanish league, because it was a recognition of my abilities and proof that an Iranian could excel in the toughest professional environment.
“My best goal was against Girondins Bordeaux at the UEFA Cup. Neither side had scored until I knocked in an extra-time winner in the second leg, which took us through to the Round of 16.”
“The nicest thing the press ever wrote about me,” he continued with a smile, “was when the papers back home compared me to Iranian caviar, famously the best in the world. The Spanish have compared me to all sorts of local players, which is pretty rare for a foreigner over there, but nicest of all was being made captain of Osasuna for the last few seasons. I was the first overseas professional to wear the armband.”
Nekounam carries an even heavier burden of responsibility as the Asian qualifiers come to the boil. His ability to shoulder the duties of captain and playmaker may prove crucial if Iran are to go all the way.