Iran came within 18 minutes of pulling a minor upset and walk away from the Yugoslavia game with a point. At the end, it was the experience and savvy of Yugoslavia that squeezed a thin victory over Iran's inexperience to defend free-kicks. When Yugoslavia was completely frustrated by its lack of production, it turned to its sweeper, Sinisa Mihajlovic — who's famous for his cannon-like free kicks — to manufacture a goal.
For the first time in a long while, perhaps since the China game in Tehran last year, Iran came out of the gates confident, organized and energetic. They were unintimated by one of the most feared teams in the World Cup, and determined to disprove the predictions of a massacre by the Yugoslav side. Wave after wave of Iranian attacks made deep penetrations into the territory of the heavy favorites, exposing Yugoslavia's tentative and unfocused play in the first half. In some ways, it worked to their advantage that Iran was playing Yugoslavia first, and not last.
Yugoslavia is certainly going to get much sharper as the games progress. Iran played a rather “German” style of hard, fast and physical play and dished out some hard, but clean fouls. In all, it committed 30 of the 40 fouls in the game.
In the first half, it was hard to tell who the more experienced and favored were: Iran was bumping the opponents hard and throwing them to the grass, while Yugoslavs were throwing their arms into the air and whining to the referee; Iran was dominating in the middle and putting on display a beautiful array of passing and trick plays while Yugoslavia wasn't able to establish the biggest part of its game, its dominant midfield. Iran owned the first half, but couldn't score. Perhaps better talent at the front to complement Ali Daei and Khodadad Azizi would have helped.
At half time, Slobodan Santrac, the Yugoslav coach, must have given them a hard tongue-lashing to wake them up. At the start of the second half, things changed. Yugoslavia came out much more focused and Iran didn't show half the energy it had in the first half. Soon, Yugoslavia's mid-field finally showed up and began to exert itself. Iran's attacks and time of possession became sparse and Yugoslavia was the one staging strikes.
When Yugoslavia finally established its mid-field it began capitalizing on the fouls that Iran was committing. On that tremendous free kick in the 73rd minute, Iran's goalie, Nima Nakisa, showed his inexperience by instructing the defensive wall to shift to the left, and then blind-sighting himself by staying behind the wall rather than covering the exposed right side. This is where Iran's past coaches can be faulted for not grooming Nakisa by giving him more experience, as though Abedzadeh would always be there. By relying on Abedzadeh entirely for the past few years, Iran exposed itself to the risk of one day putting its fate in the hands of an young goalie with no real substantive experience.
Mihajlovic hit a perfectly curled ball which traveled around the wall, through the gap that a kicking team's man standing at the end of the defensive wall creates by getting out of the way in the last second, and sailed past Nakisa who saw the ball only after it was impossible to reach. With that torpedo, Mihajlovic sank Iran's hopes. Although Iran threatened a few times, it didn't score. Iran's best chance was on a header by Daei, who in that familiar position of jumping a foot higher than his two obligatory defenders blasted the ball to the left of Kralj, but not far enough to get it past him.
Daei was guarded very closely the whole game. Azizi's speed and Karim Bagheri's power provided plenty of problems for the defense, but Iran's shortage of more finishers led to zero output for Iran. The biggest surprise of the game was Iran's defense. Iran's most glaring weakness in all of the qualifyings and pre-World Cup friendlies was not in sight. Iran marked Yugoslav strikers very tightly and when one defender was in trouble, within seconds waves of midfielders would provide ample help and neutralize the attacks. Iran's 3-4-3 formation fit its attacking character more closely.
Blame this loss on Iran's Football Federation rather than a goalie who gets thrown into the fire in the last second. It's a credit to the Iranian players to do as well as they did despite the gross ineptness of the talking heads who completely lost the sight of everything when they were given a few million dollars after Iran's qualification. This was a game that everyone had already conceded to Yugoslavia by margins of 4-0 or alike, and nobody was counting on the game being decided on a goalie's mistake.
Eight years ago, Iran's soccer was nowhere to be heard of. Four years ago Iran was barely eliminated from the qualifying games by losing three out of five games. This time, not only did Iran qualify in a much more grueling fashion, it made a great showing in the first game of the world cup against a team that has been terrorizing European teams in recent years.
Similar showings in its remaining games, regardless of the outcome will be cause for pride. Unless the ignorant incompetents who run the show in Iran's Football Federation derail soccer in Iran even more so than they have already, Iran will continue its progress to regain some of its past luster.
* Also by Hamid Taghavi
For the record
A detailed report on the Iran-Australia match