Soccer-Iran Hampered by Usual Issues Ahead of Bid to End Drought

By Michael Church

HONG KONG, Dec 29 (Reuters) – Turmoil and uncertainty have become constant companions for the Iranian national team, but coach Carlos Queiroz will look to push aside such distractions and end the country’s 43-year Asian Cup title drought at next month’s tournament.

Iran last lifted Asian football’s most coveted trophy on home soil in 1976, when they completed the third leg of three consecutive championship wins that mark the country out as one of continent’s most successful ever.

But for all their achievements since defeating Kuwait to complete the hat-trick — a resume that includes five World Cup appearances and three Asian Games gold medals — the title the nation covets the most has continued to prove elusive.

Iran head to the United Arab Emirates as one of favourites, even though Queiroz has been denied the services of Reading’s Saeid Ezatolahi, an influential presence at the heart of the team, due to injury.

The absence of the 22-year-old is the latest in a string of issues to hamper the team’s preparations, with Queiroz’s own future proving a major distraction since the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

After Iran narrowly missed out on advancing from the group stage for a first time, Queiroz’s demands for a new four-year contract were ignored by Iranian football authorities and doubts will remain over his future until the Asian Cup finishes.

Star striker Sardar Azmoun, meanwhile, shocked many when he announced his international retirement in response to abuse the 24-year-old received in the aftermath of a lacklustre World Cup campaign for the Rubin Kazan forward.

Further issues arose in early December with the Iranians at risk of an international ban from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) over government interference in the domestic federation’s affairs.

The team has suffered funding issues, too, while the United States government’s decision to impose sanctions on Tehran has made it difficult for Portugal’s Queiroz to properly prepare his squad for the tournament.

But, as a long-running row between Queiroz and former national coach Branko Ivankovic, now in charge of Iran’s most popular club Persepolis, simmers in the background, one of the most talented squads in Asia will head to the finals in January.

Azmoun has since been convinced to backtrack on his retirement decision and he leads a line-up containing 18 of the 23 players who went to Russia, where Iran defeated Morocco in their opening game to secure a second-ever World Cup victory.

A draw against Portugal in their third game could not prevent them from exiting the competition, but the four points gained were the largest haul in the country’s World Cup history.

Queiroz, whose team take on Iraq, Vietnam and Yemen in the group phase, will be looking to create history for Iran once more and nothing short of victory in the final in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 1 will be deemed a success.

(Editing by John O’Brien)