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Growing pains
We could have made it to World Cup 2002

By Hooshyar Naraghi
November 19, 2001
The Iranian

How sad, no miracle this time. But after Iran's game in Ireland, I believed this is a totally different paradigm than the matches against Australia in 1997. There was no need for a miracle anymore. I felt Iran had a great chance to lose 1-2 in Dublin, and then win 1-0 in Tehran.

The professional level of the game made Iran rise from its mediocre performances in the previous games and evolve into playing seriously, using every breath and every particle of energy. Iran respectfully and graciously rose to the occasion. In Australia four years ago, we were left with only 24 minutes and it was a real miracle to score two goals against a team that had practically dominated us.

It was a miracle that a disgruntled fan tore apart the goal net right after the second goal and the following 8-minute delay of game subsided the "Socceroo's" non-stop attacks. They had resorted to humiliating Iran and Iranians at all cost. But it backfired. The dynamics of the game change when things just don't go your way. After all, this is soccer and chance plays a big role.

In Dublin, Iran did not take advantage of three clear goal chances. Can you imagine if we had scored one goal there? Today we would have been checking our calendar to make travel plans to Japan and S. Korea for World Cup 2002.

But after the Dublin game, it was time for a reality check. We realized what the true meaning of professional football is these days. We missed goal opportunities. We did not win easy games like the one against Bahrain (both home and away games). We did not appreciate the value of scoring in crucial moments.

The Iranian squad in Tehran was much stronger than Ireland was on their own turf. Iran played great in Dublin. Ireland was essentially nonexistent at Azadi Stadium, but they showed us an example of real professional soccer, that is, how to endure pressure, how to relax the game, how to control the ball and intelligently kill time.

Our defense was superb in 180 minutes. They deflected every high ball and denied a team that lives and breathes in the Isles! Our defense neutralized a 150-year-old, British-style soccer tradition. I had never seen this kind of near perfect defense from the Iranian national team.

In the 1973 match against Australia, we lost 0-3 on their turf and won 2-0 in Tehran. That day "Sardar" Ghelich cried. He was our captain and scored both goals. At the end an Australian came to him to exchange jerseys. He reluctantly accepted. History took a picture of him hanging a yellow jersey on his shoulders and not wanting to accept the reality. Iran had been eliminated from continuing toward the 1974 World Cup in then the West Germany.

That day Iranian football matured. We admitted this when our coach Bayati said so, when our football federation president said so, and when the media wrote: "We lost because we did not know we were going to face a professional team. We did not know how to play against them." After that day Iran never lost a single match to any Asian or Australian team until 1980.

After the revolution, we had to beat China in Tehran to qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy. But our 3-2 was not good enough (we were ahead 3-0 for most of the game). Due to goal difference, China advanced to the next round. It was to be the end of the road for great players like Nasser Mohammad Khani and his teammates.

Our coach, the late Parviz Dehdari, would not dare enter Azadi Stadium because young, angry revolution-generation fans had gotten used to insulting him. They threw snow balls at him and his assistant Reza Vatankhah.

We became more mature. We realized that good words alone from an old coach would not get us anywhere. We realized a coach, who at best was a great mentor, cannot take us to the World Cup.

And now...

It seemed we really had everything going for us. This time we beat ourselves -- again. We came short because in the words of veteran analyst Behmanesh, "lahzeh haa kaarsaaz hastand" (Moments determine the end result). The battle against Ireland cannot be compared to the one against Australia four years ago, but comparable to the Iran-China match in 1990 and Iran-Australia in 1973.

Boy oh boy... It was tough to see Yahya Golmohammadi in tears after the match in Tehran. He had scored Iran's most deserved goal with a superb header in the 89th minute. He had started the tournament with humility and good plays, and ended it with grace, respect and honor.

Five years ago, then head coach Mayeli Kohan discovered Golmohammadi, who played good games but was put aside as soon as Mayeli Kohan himself was sacked. Golmohammadi came back from obscurity when the new coach, Mirsolav Blazevic, rediscovered him from the midst of mediocre matches in the Azadegan League.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed Iran's two matches against Ireland. The second match replaced the memory of Iran's best performances -- like those against Poland and the Soviet Union in the 1976 Montreal Olympics -- in my personal book. I consider those the best matches of Iran until last Thursday.

I always wanted to see a match that would change the course of our soccer history. I now have a new yardstick. I can now plot a new point in the evolutionary path of Iranian football in terms of matches in front of great European opponents. I hope, after all this, Iranian soccer would further grow, as it did in 1973 and 1990.

Let's make no mistake about it. For us, World Cup 2002 will not be as great. This World Cup will be held in Asia for the first time. Japan and South Korea are the hosts -- another first in terms of joint host nations. How could Iran not be there? Iran and South Korea hold the best records in this ancient continent. Both are considered jewels in the crown of Asian football. But, we have to accept reality. It took me three days to sink in.

Every time we watch Ireland during the World Cup, we will remember November 15, 2001. We will remember that we defeated Ireland and broke their record of 13 straight no-loss matches. Even greats like Holland (4th-place holder in 1998 World Cup that was eliminated by Ireland) and Portugal (the team that made it to the World Cup with goal difference) did not defeat the Irish.

The world will miss Iran's resilient football.


Hooshyar Naraghi is the webmaster of sportestan.com.
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