When England and Iran in meet in their opening game of the World Cup 2022, a face familiar to many England fans will be in charge of the Iranian national team.
Carlos Queiroz, famously once Sir Alex Ferguson’s assistant at Manchester United and then Real Madrid manager in his own right, was rehired for the finals 75 days before the tournament's kick-off. Queiroz, the coach who led Iran to the 2014 and 2018 World Cup finals, is held in the highest esteem after his exploits in the last decade.
Team Melli were Asia’s seventh ranked team when he took over in 2011, and 54th in the world. Within three years they were the first. Iran had no dedicated scouting staff, salaries were poor and securing money for the team hotels and travel expenses was a struggle.
Queiroz, who relied on an international network of contacts garnered throughout a 40-year career in professional football, objected to his players flying economy and airport transfers which could take six hours early on in his tenure. He won some concessions, but it remained a struggle against far better resourced opponents. In 2014, Fifa retained Iran’s World Cup qualification money because the banks are not allowed to transfer it into the country. Without that money, their players weren’t paid for their achievement of reaching the World Cup finals.
Teams didn’t want to play Iran in friendlies, yet in Belo Horizonte in 2014 they almost snatched a 0-0 draw against Argentina. Iran made only made 114 passes in the whole match, the lowest amount for 50 years in a World Cup, but held football’s finest attack, created better chances in the second half and should have been awarded a penalty. Cheeky Brazilians were singing 'Ole, Ole, Ole, Iran, Iran' while two thousand Iranians, who’d overcome difficult travel restrictions, couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Then Lionel Messi scored. Queiroz recognized his genius but he was furious that Pablo Zabaleta wasn’t sent off. Iran went out.
Queiroz did even better at Russia 2018. Iran didn’t lose any of their ten games in qualifying and conceded only twice. They were the first team to qualify for Russia and the first team to arrive and take advantage of superior training facilities to the ones they have back home. They’re in talks with Russia about a friendly before Qatar – two global pariahs whose footballers just want to play football. Queiroz has long been consistent on this.
“My message for international football is very simple: let us play. Our players deserve that opportunity. Don’t let sanctions create this stigma. Don’t let this go against the spirit of the game," Queiroz says. "We have football players who love the game. Iran loves football and people know we have problems and now look at Iran differently, more respectfully because they know the challenges we have.”
In Russia, Iran beat Morocco in the opening game, lost 1-0 to Spain in the second and were a goal down to Portugal in the third when Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty. Iran equalised and were going through, but Spain’s equaliser against Morocco in the 90th minute prevented Iran from going beyond the group stage for the first time.
Team Melli, always obdurate, solid and handsome, were fancied for the 2019 Asian Cup.
“We’re consistent and we’re going to the Asian Cup where we’re expected to compete for the title,” said the manager then. “Now is a unique and rare opportunity for us to grow up, to learn as a team and have a powerful team ready to win the Asian Cup.” It didn’t happen. Iran cruised through the group without conceding a goal, defeated China 3-0 but then let in three second-half goals against Japan in the semi-final. Queiroz left the job.
After a few months resting at home with his family near Lisbon, Queiroz accepted his first appointment in South America, managing Colombia. Initial results were positive and they defeated Argentina 2-0 in Copa America, but the wins turned to defeats and he was sacked after Colombia failed to qualify for Qatar.
Egypt came next. With Mohammad Salah up front, he took them to the final of the 2021 African Cup of Nations. Egypt became masters at 0-0 draws and wins on penalties. Until the final, that is, when they lost 7-6 on penalties to Senegal. A few months later, Senegal again defeated Egypt on penalties in a play-off for Qatar – despite both sides missing their opening two penalties. Queiroz resigned and went back to Lisbon.
People still asked him about Iran.
“People ask me about Iran because they’re curious,” he explained. “I tell them that I see exactly the same as in any other country I’ve been to – people who laugh and cry, who dance, who sing. You see mums carrying their kids to school in the morning. You see people complaining about the traffic. Football teaches you how much human beings have in common that have nothing to do with any politics or regimes.”
Talent-wise, Queiroz made the most of what he had. He was surprised when he arrived at Manchester United to be told by Sir Alex Ferguson that he was taking training on the first day. He’d not planned a session but felt he was being handed the keys to a Ferrari. Ferguson adored and trusted him.
He’s not had a national team full of such talents - the Portugal side he managed in 2008-10 were the best (he also managed his homeland in 1991-93 and, at a younger level, led them to the FIFA Youth championship in 1989 and 1991), but he makes his teams difficult to beat.
And now he’s back for a third successive World Cup finals with Iran. Their group, with England, USA and Wales, looks easier than in 2018, when Spain and Portugal were among tournament favourites.
"You’re not going to get drawn with Ethiopia are you?” he responded to a question about tough groups in World Cup finals. He’s now 69 but maintains that his passion for winning is undimmed. And he was happy to go back to Iran, where he is hugely popular. The National spoke with several football fans in Iran who confirmed what we had witnessed during a 2014 visit.
The Portuguese replaced Dragan Skocic, who had achieved qualification to Qatar. Skocic was sacked in July amid reports of divisions within the team and then re-instated six days later. Queiroz came back after the Iranian Football Federation’s Mehdi Taj was re-elected last month.
Iran have never gone beyond the group stages in the World Cup finals. Quieroz’s team will prepare with friendlies against Uruguay and Senegal in Austria. At least he won’t be able to lose for a third consecutive time against Senegal on penalties.
Queiroz has coached at the highest level across continents (South Africa, 2000-02, New York 1996, Japan 1996-97, and UAE 1998-99). He’s managed Real Madrid, but nowhere, in club or national team football, has he led a team for 100 games as he has with Iran, who lost only 13 of those games under him. You can understand why they wanted him back.