Iran could be one of the few Asian teams to make it to the knock-out stages of the FIFA World Cup 2018 and avoiding a loss to Portugal could make their path easier.
Eight years ago, they said ‘this time for Africa’ and but for the hand of Luis Suarez, there may well have been a first African team in the World Cup semi-finals. 2010 was also the last time an Asian team survived the group. Based on what I saw from the three Asian teams so far, I would hedge my bets on that happening again. But if I really have to put my money on a team, it would Iran.
True, they needed a slice of luck but they were also organized and reaping the benefits of being under the same coach, Carlos Queiroz, for their second successive World Cup. I have read that players want him to stay and that can happen only because Queiroz has helped them grow.
I think Queiroz is to Iran what Bob Houghton was for us; someone whose influence extends beyond the pitch. Though I think it would be difficult for them to cope with Spain’s slick, passing game, I am curious to see how Iran deal with Portugal. Queiroz knows everything about Portugal and their reliance on one man could make deconstruction easier.
If Iran can avoid defeat against Portugal, they could stay for the knockouts. Australia wasn’t overrun by France and that is saying a lot about the Socceroos. But they are transitioning from Ange Postecoglu’s to Bert van Marwijk. They have also played the maximum number of games, 22, in the history of the World Cup qualifiers and that could have a knock-on effect.
I think they will do better in the Asian Cup next January. Barring Iran, all teams from Asia have come to Russia with new coaches and the World Cup isn’t the best place to get used to one. To the problem of unsettled teams add there being few Asian players in the top leagues and it figures why our continent doesn’t do well at World Cups.
South Korea’s Son Heung-min is an exception rather than the rule but like Lionel Messi, he often struggles to replicate his club form for country. Heung-min’s teammate Harry Kane will start his campaign on Monday and his England team is different from the one whose line would be led by Alan Shearer or have a fox-in-box like Gary Lineker.
Wes Brown, who I am sharing a television studio with, told me that for a change the English media has turned down the volume and I think near-zero expectations can only be a good thing. In Jesse Lingard, Delle Ali, Raheem Sterling, England have players who are comfortable on the ball so this is a team that might surprise a few. Ditto, Belgium though they seem to be like Spain of yore; full of promise little to show for it.
For such a small country, Belgium punch above their weight in sport — they are the Olympic silver medallists in hockey, in David Goffin have a top-10 men’s tennis player and the Save brothers have left their mark on table tennis — so it doesn’t fit that its star-studded football under-achieves. Maybe, it will change this time.