There is a neat symmetry about Iran lining out today in Curitiba: the tournament's worst-prepared stadium hosts its worst-prepared team. What could possibly go wrong? It would be nice to think this augurs well for the chances of "Team Melli", but it is hard to spin a positive from a side that was unable to arrange a decent pre-World Cup friendly, had a fierce falling-out over playing kit and training camps, and was never particularly good in the first place.
Here is the best we can do: Carlos Queiroz's side will face Nigeria with one of the best recent defensive records of any team in Brazil, and their qualification for the tournament was reward for noble consistency over an epic 16-match qualifying campaign. Ranked seventh in Asia when that campaign began, with four countries to qualify, they beat South Korea home and away to finish ranked first on the continent. If these results imply good spirit and doggedness, they are above all a tribute to Queiroz's skill as a defensive coach and his players' discipline.
These are not the kind of details to get your heart racing in this thrilling World Cup, and you might fear the worst for today's spectacle until you understand its must-win circumstances. African champions Nigeria have genuine hopes of making the second phase, but require three points to do so. Iran's players face the same demand and have been talking a good game.
“I can say with confidence that we will be a surprise for all people,” experienced midfielder Andranik Teymourian predicted. This week president Hassan Rouhani chipped in on the theme of making it through the group stages, albeit in the language of a technocrat: “Of course we want the team to succeed and qualify for the next round. The team should play with high spirit and utilise the best techniques.”
Even so, the mood in Iran has been far more subdued of late than when millions hit the streets to hail qualification for Brazil after a remarkable victory in South Korea – whom Queiroz goaded, thrilling Iranians – last summer. High-profile disputes between Queiroz and the Iranian football federation over funding have soured the mood, in particular the inability of the federation to fund a proper set of kit for the players. Last month the federation president said players would not even be allowed to swap jerseys with their World Cup opponents.
The farce has been building steadily since qualification, partly influenced by events beyond the team’s control. Economic sanctions on the country over its nuclear programme meant that 119 days passed before the national side played a game. In recent weeks just one goal conceded in pre-tournament friendlies appeared to offer hope – until you realise the games were against Belarus, Montenegro, Angola and Trinidad & Tobago.
More instructive was the disaster of a training camp arranged by Queiroz in South Africa in April, to which only 12 players showed up, amid an almighty row over the lack of decent training kit. “They give us large size socks and after two days and being washed they shrink to a small size,” striker Karim Ansarifard told a press conference, as a bizarre public spat developed with the federation about the material use in the gear – polyester or not polyester?
“With such arrangement and programme failures, don’t expect much from Team Melli in Brazil. We will not make it to the next round because of the failure of the South Africa camp,” an exasperated Queiroz told a TV interviewer.
The shame of the situation lies in the significant progress the Portuguese made with the Iranians since taking the job in April 2011. Now 61 years old, Queiroz is bringing his third side to a World Cup after South Africa in 2002 and Portugal in 2010, and they bear his hallmarks: disciplined, organised, defensive.
They also bear his stamp in other ways after an early recruitment drive saw a number of key foreign-born players drafted in: notably key winger Ashkan Dejagah of Fulham, who was a German youth international alongside Mezut Ozil, and Reza Ghoochannejhad (Fulham) – mercifully, known as “Gucci”.
Raised in the Netherlands, Gucci played for his home country up to under-19 level until Queiroz came calling, and although the striker has made little impression in England so far his goals in qualifying have made him Iran's star performer. But this is a team of artisans, not artists, who will sit deep and break quickly. Captain Javad Nekounam will anchor the midfield alongside Teymourian in a 4-2-3-1 formation that be expected to shield what is considered the team's weak link, goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi.
Nigeria’s World Cup finals record since their last victory in France back in 1998 stands at a pitiful two draws and six defeats. Are opponents like Iran just what they required? “I know that before the final draw there were 31 teams who wanted Iran to be in their group. Our goal now is to make them sorry that they thought that way,” Queiroz told World Soccer. We won’t be holding our breath.