The Iranian nation patiently waited for its Eidi and on Friday March 25, Team Melli duely delivered.
In a sparkling performance longly awaited by many from this very gifted team, the stalemate witnessed during the Asian Cup of last summer was replaced by a vibrant performance in which both teams went for the win – with Japan's poor team work, coupled with an excellent performance by the Iranian defenders and two killer blows dealt by Vahid Hashemian, a player who returned to the national team fold only as late as September 2004, after a three-year absence due to his on-going dispute with Iranian Football Federation officials, swaying the tie in Iran's side.
A capacity Azadi crowd ensured that the team recieved all necessary moral support, even going as far as stepping up the level of vocal support after Japan's temporary equaliser, courtesy of Takashi Fukunishi twenty minutes into the second half, in the Iranian defense's only blunder of the game.
No sooner were the people of Tehran out in the streets to celebrate that Team Melli embarked on a flight to Beijing, where a couple of days were spent training on a turf similar to the artificial one used in the Kim Il Sung National Stadium in Pyongyang. Overlooked by a giant portrait of its namesake, the late Stalinist ruler of North Korea and creator of the Juche cult, the stadium can hold up to 70,000 fans, most of which will be as passionate as the Azadi crowd.
Wednesday's game is played at the curious local time of 15:35, which makes many wonder if the North Korean authorities chose an afternoon kick off to allay the risks of a blackout to the stadium lighting system, in a country known for its frequent energy crises >>> Listen to live broadcast
Iran goes into the game with only one notable absence with respect to the team that faced Japan, that of skipper Ali Daei, who was subbed out at the end of the first half due to injury. Asian Player of the Year Ali Karimi will probably take his place, vacating his own central midfield position to Fereydoun Zandi, who is getting more and more into Team Melli schemes, despite his lack of adequately spoken Persian.
This will be a litmus test for a team that will soon have to be used to playing without its landmark captain of many years, who, after a lot of pressure and concern regarding his declining fitness and quality of play, is probably close to retiring from National Team football.
While North Korea is arguably the most reclusive and isolated country in the world, its football history is not to be coughed at. Its entrance into the map of notable footballing countries stretches back to 1966, when an unknown dentist called Pak doo Ik scored the winning goal of a famous 2-1 victory against giants Italy in the World Cup then taking place in England.
North Korea eventually lost out to Portugal in the later rounds of the tournament, in a game that heralded the start of Portuguese legend Eusebio's fame, thanks to a brilliant performance that helped Portugal overcome a 0-3 deficit to win the game 5-3. Ever since this momentous World Cup appearance, North Korea has been something of a hidden dragon of Asian football, with upsets being it's speciality.
After a lacklustre performance in the 2004 Asian Cup qualifiers, where Iran beat North Korea twice (although the Tehran leg was marred by a firecracker incident that lead the North Korea team to walk off the pitch and hence the match awarded to Iran), the Far East team sprung back into course with a good performance in the preliminary round of the World Cup 2006 qualifiers, where they beat group favourites UAE to the top, and only qualifying spot for the next round.
North Korea now meets Iran after two close defeats to Japan and Bahrain, in both of which North Korea had a good chance of levelling or even winning the game. As many Team Melli players repetedly declared, it is not an opponent to be taken lightly, although an echo of the dazzling performance seen against Japan will be probably more than enough to see off the Korean opponent and firmly establish Iran in the driving seat for an automatic World Cup spot.
Given the performance we all saw and admired in Azadi, this is not a far fetched prospect and, combined with a draw in the other group game, Japan-Bahrain, the dream of an early Iran lead in the group table and a firm presence in the top two that are granted automatic access to a ticket to Germany could very well become a reality in a few hours time.
Siavush Randjbar-Daemi is a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in Italy and staff member of Persianfootball.com.