Iran are entering their sixth World Cup with somewhat of a near home advantage with the tournament being held in the Middle East. Still, a last-minute manager change and a divided dressing room threaten to derail their chances of advancing out of the group stage for the first time.
Team Meli were one goal away from knocking out then reigning European champions Portugal from the 2018 World Cup and securing a place in the Round of 16 in Russia. But, if they are to cause an upset in Qatar, they will have to overcome the disorder in their own ranks.
A tumultuous summer behind the scenes has led to a dramatic change of leadership, with Carlos Queiroz returning as head coach under the appointment of Mehdi Taj, who was recently re-elected president of the Iranian Football Federation.
The former Real Madrid head coach is already the longest-serving manager in the country’s history, previously leading Iran to the 2014 and 2018 World Cups in his previous eight-year spell. Yet, his appointment comes off the back of a failed campaign with Egypt, where the Pharaohs failed to qualify for the World Cup and lost the final of the Africa Cup of Nations.
The Portuguese manager takes over from Dragan Skocic, who suffered just two defeats in 18 games at the helm, and his departure may have a lasting impact on the squad, as his previous sacking and reinstatement in August caused major division between senior players.
Queiroz will be hoping that there is no bad blood between the strike partnership of Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun, nicknamed 'The Iranian Messi', and Mehdi Taremi of Porto, who scored the sensational bicycle kick against Chelsea in the Champions League that won goal of the tournament in 2021.
The duo will be central to any success for the Iranians, despite publicly coming to blows on social media following uncertainty surrounding the future of their Croatian manager back in August.
This build-up has similarities to that of the 1998 World Cup, which is also the last time Iran faced the USA in the group stages. They appointed three different managers before a politically charged meeting with the Americans, which they won 2-1 to secure their first-ever World Cup victory. The encore promises to be just as memorable, with the two sides coming together again in the last game of the group stages.
Manager: Carlos Queiroz
Star player: Mehdi Taremi
One to watch: Sardar Azmoon
World Cup finals appeared in: 1978, 1998, 2006, 2014, 2018
Fixtures: Nov 21 - England v Iran; Nov 25 - Wales v Iran; Nov 29 - Iran v USA