Qatar World Cup 2022: Queiroz tipped for Iran comeback, as US grudge match looms
Football matches between Iran and the United States have a special place in Iran’s national consciousness.
So special that Iran’s victory over the US national team at the 1998 World Cup finals in France is widely regarded within Iran as the greatest moment in the country’s sporting history since the 1979 revolution which established the current Islamic republic.
Indeed, a mural of Hamid Estili scoring the opening goal in that 2-1 win has been painted on the exterior wall of the former American embassy in Tehran.
The mural portrays Estili’s header as a punch, reflecting popular hostility towards the US which has long been depicted here - even before the current era of sanctions and tensions - as an imperialist bogeyman plotting against Tehran.
As if the message of the mural is not clear enough, the building behind it - where dozens of Americans were held hostage after revolutionaries stormed the compound in 1979 - has been renamed the “US Den of Espionage Museum”.
Iran have only played the US men's senior national team on one other occasion: following their World Cup encounter, a friendly match was arranged between the countries in Pasadena, California, in 2000, ending in a 1-1 draw.
But fast forward nearly a quarter-century and history has the chance to repeat itself. On 29 November Iran once again face the US in the group stages of a World Cup, this time in Qatar.
For those looking for omens, the match also falls on the 25th anniversary of Iran’s victory over Australia in 1997 which saw the country qualify for the tournament for the first time.
There’s little question that Iran have the players capable of winning the game. Their stars include Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun, Porto striker Mehdi Taremi and Alireza Jahanbaksh, the national captain currently playing for Feyenoord who made a name for himself with a spectacular bicycle kick goal while playing for Brighton against Chelsea in the English Premier League in 2020.
However, Iran face a problem which will be painfully familiar to football fans.
With less than three months to go before the World Cup starts, a campaign is underway to oust the national team’s Croatian manager, Dragan Skocic.
The campaigners - who are reported to have the backing of some of the Iranian players themselves - want to replace him with Carlos Queiroz, the veteran Portuguese coach who led Iran to the last two World Cup tournaments in Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018.
A decision now looks imminent following the election on Tuesday of Mehdi Taj as president of the Iranian Football Federation.
Taj is a controversial figure in Iranian football and no stranger to a role which he previously held from 2016 until his resignation due to health problems in 2019.
He is rumoured to be already in touch with Queiroz, who was dismissed as Egyptian manager earlier this year after the Pharaohs were beaten by Senegal in the final of the African Cup of Nations and then lost again to Senegal in the World Cup qualifying rounds to miss out on a place in Qatar.
Queiroz is a highly regarded figure in world football. He is a former manager of Real Madrid and was for many years Alex Ferguson’s deputy at Manchester United.
In his autobiography Ferguson described Queiroz as “brilliant. Just brilliant. Outstanding”. Ferguson called him an “intelligent, meticulous man”, adding that he was the “closest you could be to being the Manchester United manager without actually holding the title”.
He attained hero status in Iran during the 2018 World Cup when the country came agonisingly close to qualifying for the knockout stages after beating Morocco and giving his home country Portugal a major scare in a match which finished in a 1-1 draw, but could easily have swung in the Iranians’ favour.
According to Iran Daily football correspondent, Amirhadi Arsalanpour: “The majority of the squad first played for Iran under Queiroz. They have so many good memories of playing for him.”
Still, it would be cruel luck for Skocic if he were removed at this stage.
He was hired as manager when Iran’s chances of World Cup qualification seemed hopeless after early defeats inflicted by Iraq and Bahrain.
Since taking over, he has secured an astonishing revival in Iran’s fortunes with 15 victories in 18 matches. In 22nd place, Iran are currently the highest Asian nation in FIFA’s world rankings.
But critics say Skocic, who had mostly been coaching club sides in Iran prior to getting the national job in 2020, lacks the ability to organise a team defensively against higher calibre opposition and speculate that Queiroz would do a better job.
Arsalanpour, however, is not convinced of the case for change.
“I would stick with Skocic,” he told Middle East Eye. “His record speaks for itself.”
With Taj back in charge, a decision on Skocic’s future could be made within days.
Iran play two World Cup warm-up matches against Senegal and Uruguay next month, and if a new manager is to have any chance of making an impact he will need to be in charge before then.
Failing that, the management crisis threatens to destabilise Iran’s preparations as they bid to improve on their impressive performances in Russia, and to stoke further divisions and uncertainty within the squad.
That, ultimately, could play into the hands of Iran’s opponents: England, Wales, and, above all, a US team who will undoubtedly be fired up for a game loaded with geopolitical symbolism and by the chance to avenge that famous defeat in 1998.