FILE PHOTO: Dragan Skocic REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad.

Jan 28 (Reuters) – Iran coach Dragan Skocic said he had proved the doubters wrong by turning around the team’s fortunes and securing a spot at the World Cup, and the Croat fully intends to be at the helm during the finals in Qatar later this year.

Iran became the first Asian nation to book their place via the preliminaries on Thursday by beating neighbours Iraq 1-0 in Tehran, the victory sealed by a goal from Mehdi Taremi.

The Porto striker struck three minutes into the second half at the Azadi Stadium to leave Iran top of Group A, sealing qualification for a third consecutive World Cup finals.

“I believed in my work from (the) first but many underestimated me and didn’t respect me but I’m very happy because I’ve proved myself,” the Tehran Times quoted Skocic as saying.

“I am under contract with (the) Iran football federation until 2023 and my plan is to lead (the) Iran football team in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.”

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Skocic spent eight years working in club football in Iran before taking charge of the national team in February 2020, replacing Marc Wilmots.

The Iranians struggled during Wilmots’ seven-month tenure, with the former Belgium coach leading the team to losses against Iraq and Bahrain that put progress to the third phase of the preliminaries in peril.

Skocic made an immediate impact, with Iran winning 10 and drawing one of the 11 qualifiers since the 53-year-old’s appointment, form that secured their sixth World Cup appearance.

The improvements did not come without some drama, however, with Taremi only returning to the squad for Thursday’s game after being dropped for the previous two matches for publicly criticising Skocic.

Iran had to do without key striker Sardar Azmoun for the match, however, due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Skocic said the margin of victory should have been wider but was delighted to secure progress with three games to spare.

“I am very happy since I could make the Iranian people happy,” he added.

“It took 15 minutes to find our tempo and then we were the dominant team and created so many chances. We could have scored more than one goal.”

(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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