by Christopher Stout
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At every World Cup, there is one team that comes out of nowhere to make a major impact. The other teams in Group D (Portugal, Mexico, and Angola) need to be aware of an emerging menace on the international scene. Put simply, Iran poses a threat to the entire world, and the rapid development of its soccer program demands immediate investigation.
Led by Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic, the best team in the history of Iranian soccer is prepared to do some damage at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. When the team first qualified for the finals in July, it prompted a nationwide celebration in Iran. The Iranian players are more than just representatives of their sport and country; they are emissaries of hope in uncertain times.
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Iran is currently ranked No. 19 in the world. During the qualifying round, Iran finished second behind Japan in Group Two. This year will mark only the third time that Iran has appeared in the World Cup Finals. Their first finals win was an emotional first-round victory against the United States in 1998. That triumph was followed by a quick exit in the next round of the tournament. After failing to qualify in 2002, the national squad was infused with a slew of promising young players. Iran was the first team to qualify for the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, and after the disappointing experience in 2002, the squad will look to make the best of their World Cup opportunity.
Key Players: Ali Karami, the 2004 Asian Player of the Year, began playing for the national squad when he was 20 years old. "The Wizard of Tehran" helped Iran win the 1998 Asian Games, scoring the decisive goal in the finals. Karimi led the way for Al-Ahli of Dubai as that club took home the President Cup in the 2001-2002 season. In 2002, he was nominated as the Best League Player in the UAE league. Soon, Karimi was being courted by the clubs of Europe. He now plays ball for Bayern Munich.
Karimi began his career as an attacking midfielder. He plays forward for the national team. He's well known for acrobatic shots, clutch headers and an uncanny ability to control the ball. This latter skill has earned him the nickname, "Asian Maradona." In the quarterfinal of the 2004 Asian Cup, Karimi scored three times against the Korean Republic, a team that made the semifinals in the 2002 World Cup. Look for Karami to split defenders and rack up scores this summer in Germany.
Ali Daei, the elder stateman of the squad, is a living legend. The team's Captain and unquestioned leader will turn 37 years old this month. Daei is a true striker. He's the all-time leading scorer in international matches according to the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS). In the 1998 World Cup qualifying round, Daei scored 38 goals in 56 matches. Sure he's old, but you just know that Daei has some more goals left to score. Although Iran's national team may be getting a whole lot younger, there's no question that Ali Daei can still be a primary contributor to the team's international success.
Vahid Hashemian is another formidable forward for Iran. Hashemian had issues with the Iranian Football Federations, and initially decided to stay away from Team Melli. To the delight of Iranian soccer fans, Hashemian returned to the national team, and his impact has been appreciated. During the 2006 World Cup qualifications, Hashemian scored decisive goals against Qatar and Japan. Hashemian currently plays for Hanover in the German Bundesliga.
Mehdi Mahdavikia is Iran's premium set-up midfielder. Plagued by injuries the last couple years, Mahdavikia is now healthy and ready to play. His crosses are superb and his quickness allows him to separate from defenders and make quality passes. Mahdavikia can also score when needed. His two goals against China in the Asian qualifying rounds of the 1998 World Cup helped to turn that game around. Mahdavikia's most famous score, however, came during the first round of the World Cup in 1998, when he scored the second goal in Iran's emotional victory over the United States.
Hossein Kaebi is Iran's emerging new superstar. He's a little guy with lots of speed, and he plays the game with plenty of passion. Sometimes his enthusiasm and temperament can get the best of him; he's well known for attracting red cards. In 2004, Kaebi was among the players named in World Soccer Magazine's Top 100 most promising players. The quick feet of this midfielder should help Iran's team for years to come.
Many of Iran's players have experience playing in Germany. Five members of Iran's squad lace up their cleats for Bundesliga clubs: Ali Karimi (Bayern Munich), Vahid Hashemian (Hanover), Mehdi Mahdavikia (Hamburg), Moharram Navidkia (Bochum), and Fereydoon Zandi (Kaiserslautern). Familiarity with the terrain will be an added bonus for the Iranians.
Iran World Cup 2006 Odds: According to Bodog, Iran has 20/1 shot at winning Group D and a 450/1 chance of winning the entire tournament.
Strengths: Iran's offense is potent. The squad has experienced forwards that can score, and a midfield that can get the ball to the attackers up front. Familiarity with the terrain will help. Being considered the best Iranian team ever assembled doesn't hurt either.
Weaknesses: Iran's defense could use some reinforcing. We know the team can score, but Iran doesn't want to get stuck in too many shootouts.
Iran World Cup 2006 Outlook: Iran is long shot to win the tournament, but the Persians still have the fire power to cause an upset.
Iran World Cup 2006 First Round Match Schedule (all times local):
Sunday, June 11, Group D2 Iran vs. Group D1 Mexico in Nuremburg, 6 p.m.
Friday, June 17, Group D2 Iran vs. Group D4 Portugal in Frankfurt, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, June 21, Group D2 Iran vs. Group D3 Angola, Leipzig, 4 p.m.
Updated Iran World Cup 2006 News: