Chaos, Carlos, and a Croatian: Iran are England’s trickiest group stage foe

Team Melli are something of an unknown entity heading into the World Cup.

Somebody call ‘80s new wave hairspray fanatics A Flock of Seagulls, because it turns out that Iran aren’t so far away after all. It’s now a little over a month until England begin their World Cup group stage campaign against Team Melli - as they are affectionately known - and yet, out of the Three Lions’ trio of upcoming opponents in Qatar, they will, for the vast majority, be shrouded in the most mystery.

Wales are Wales; fellow home nation, potential banana skin with a bloodlust to slake and a point to prove when they meet Gareth Southgate’s men in Al Rayyan on November 29th (loser has to keep Robbie Savage). Meanwhile, the USA are slowly starting to find their footing on the world stage, but will not be taken seriously while their biggest footballing export remains Ted Lasso.

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Iran, however, could prove to be tricky. Managed by former Manchester United coach Carlos Queiroz, the nation of 86 million heads into the World Cup against a backdrop of fierce social unrest and surprising on-field optimism.

Any conversation surrounding Iran at the present moment would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of the seething tension that has beset the country in recent weeks. Protestors have taken to the streets in their masses following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who passed away in custody after being arrested by the Islamic republic’s morality police in September for wearing “unsuitable attire”.

In response to the public uprisings, President Ebrahim Raisi has labelled the USA a “Great Satan”, and has accused his American counterpart Joe Biden of “inciting chaos and terror” after he spoke in support of the citizens who continue to dissent against the Iranian government. The two nations play each other on the same day that England face Wales. Insert Gareth Keenan quote about quiet nights and libraries here.

The point is, there are things that are vastly more important than football. Truth be told, that’s a mantra that should probably be reiterated ceaselessly throughout FIFA’s Qatari debacle. But inevitably, at some stage attention will shift back to matters on the pitch, and when they do, Iran have reasons to be hopeful.

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Last month, Queiroz’s side beat a Uruguayan team boasting the likes of Luis Suarez, Darwin Nunez, and Federico Valverde in a friendly in Austria. For a country who rarely get the opportunity to compete in such fixtures through a combination of international isolationism and outside sanctions, it was a real statement of intent. It was also partial vindication for a manager who has all but stumbled his way back into the role after a seemingly muddled period for Iranian football.

This is Queiroz’s second tenure at the helm for Team Melli, and it has only come about in the wake of the messy dismissal of predecessor Dragan Skocic. The Croatian was the man who guided Iran to 15 wins in 18 matches during their qualification process, but that stellar record was still not enough to save him from the sack amid simmering rumours that the republic’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, preferred the symbolism of a national team led by a homegrown manager.

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Skocic was subsequently fired, only to return to his post within a week after expected successor Ali Daei (a man whose international goalscoring prowess was eclipsed only by the luscious splendour of his Super Mario Bros. moustache) ruled himself out of the running. By that point the resulting chasm was simply too broad to bridge or ignore, and with a squad divided and public opinion split, Skocic was eventually replaced by Queiroz. There are primetime HBO series with less convoluted succession plots. House of the Dragan, indeed.

But for all of the melodrama, Queiroz has wasted little time in restoring a measure of order to the three-time Asian champions. Now, as chaos reigns all around them and with just weeks remaining before the World Cup, Iran, against all kinds of conventional wisdom, look like they might just have enough moxy to dish out a bloody nose or two. They may be the least talked about of England’s group stage foes, but they could yet prove the most troublesome.

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Original story appeared on appeared on 3 Added Minutes - a new football site that goes beyond the 90 minutes of football reporting.