The cream of Asian football will meet in Tehran’s Azadi stadium on Friday (18:05 local time), when Iran will host Asian Cup winners Japan in an AFC Group B World Cup Qualifier.
Nowrouz has just passed, and many Iranians around the world are delightfully using their Eidi presents. But there is one present that has not been unwrapped yet, since it's due to be delivered on March 25: the joy of seeing Team Melli win a crucial World Cup 2006 qualifier against Japan in Azadi Stadium., Tehran.
On Friday, Asia's currently two best teams (Iran and Japan take turns in being ahead of each other in the monthy FIFA World Rankings) will go head to head in the West Tehran cauldron, where a crowd of over 100,000 Iranians, most of whom afforded the spare time of the lengthy Nowrouz holidays and the economic incentive of the promise of free tickets for some parts of the stadium, will match a determined contingent of fans who will arrive from Tokyo. Famed for not leaving anything to chance, the Japanese authorities forced the tourists to undertake a small course on the behavior to adopt once the 3,000 person party arrives in Iran.
The two teams reach the Azadi showdown in different shape. Japan won their first game, against a surprisingly sprightly North Korea side, that succumbed only at the very end of the ninety minutes of play, loosing the game 2-1. Iran on the hand played a very stiff and dry encounter in Manama, Bahrain, that left many Team Melli fans not too upset at the 0-0, given that the match could have very easily been a repeat of the dreadful October 2001 3-1 defeat that cost Iran a berth in World Cup 2002.
Various colorful reasons were set forth for Iran's bad performance, the most fancied was Captain Daei's assertion that the Nike balls used during the game were unsuited to Team Melli, having worked with Adidas kicking material for years. The state of the field brought to blame was easier to comprehend, as the game was played in a terrain much more akin to a potato plantation than a professional football arena.
Having set aside the rickety ride to Manama and back, Team Melli has been gearing up in the best of spirits, and one of the best Iranian sides ever will face a wily Japanese outfit that has proven to be able to withstand the toughest of hostile environments in the Asian Cup 2004 Final, when faced with a incessant barrage of Chinese venom, they held sway in the National Stadium in Beijing and defeated hosts China to win their second Asian title in a row.
It is therefore doubtful that Azadi's fearsome appearance will taunt them excessively. That said, a moral boost for the Iranian team is not to be discounted, and the festive atmosphere of Nowrouz, coupled with the unique prospect of giving an Eidi that will be remembered into the years to the millions of devout Team Melli worshippers must be ringing through the minds of the Iranian players.
Team Melli is a mix of fresh talent, some of which noted internationally as outstanding, and safe old hands who have been in the thick of the action is many of Team Melli's recent moments of glory. Will Ali Daei or Khodadad Azizi perform the crowning action of the twilight of their careers or will teenager Hossein Kaabi or new import Fereydoun Zandi strike the first of a hopefully long series of winning actions for their National Team?
Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic, a patient tacticial of the game, has steadfastly refused to sub out, or worse yet, bench veteran recordbreaker Ali Daei unless he calls himself out due to injury, raising the criticism of those who claim that the Ardabili striker's form is long past the one needed to be a Team Melli starter. Ivankovic mostly prefers a one striker formation, and keeps the flanks wide. many have hinted at a long standing personality war in Team Melli, with Daei calling the shots and avoiding competition for his coveted role. So far, these has been no substance to these claims against the longstanding Captain.
Ivankovic's men walk into the field with the high expectations of a nation that eagerly awaits an international success of any kind, most importantly in the sports arena. Iran has all the ingredients on paper to achieve a famous win against the powerhouse of Asian football, and thus establish a name for itself internationally.
Whether we will all recieve the best of Nowrouz Eidis is a matter of hours away, but certain is the fact that a positive score in Azadi would very well justify a frenzy of phone calls by Iranians worldwide to tour operators and tourist agencies offering summer packages to Germany next year, as little more than standard performance would be needed from our team to see through the remainder of the World Cup Qualification series and join the world's elite teams at next summer's competition.
About Siavush Randjbar-Daemi is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in Italy and staff member of Persianfootball.com.