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Once a nation that was mostly an afterthought in the global soccer landscape, Iran has reshaped itself into one of Asia’s most consistent sides. Team Melli breezed through qualifying for the third straight time. Now, it’s entering a World Cup with largely the same team with which it missed out on the knockout stage by only a point in 2018—in a group featuring Spain and Portugal, no less.
But the story of Iran heading into Qatar primarily surrounds the turmoil off the pitch. Amid ongoing protests in the country surrounding the treatment of women, multiple former members of the national team have been arrested for speaking out. Current national side players have been continuously silenced, leading to more symbolic acts like covering the team’s emblem during the national anthem prior to a tune-up match. A campaign has begun in recent weeks to urge FIFA to disqualify Iran from the tournament due to the ongoing political situation.
On the pitch, it’s been a disastrous run-up to the World Cup. Manager Dragan Skokic was fired in July, then reinstated just days later, then replaced by former manager Carlos Queiroz in September. Forward Sardar Azmoun, whose 10 goals and four assists in qualifying powered the team to Qatar, picked up an injury playing with club Bayer Leverkusen. He will make the trip, though his availability and effectiveness remain unclear.
Whether the team’s veteran presence and resolve are enough to overcome all the other noise will determine if Iran can reach its first World Cup knockout stage.
Player to Watch
Mehdi Taremi, forward
The Porto man has reportedly garnered interest from Arsenal after recording double-digit goals and assists in each of the last two years in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. The 30-year-old is an intelligent player with plenty of big-game experience—he’s played in 15 Champions League matches with Porto and scored two goals to win a domestic cup final. He didn’t produce much in 2018, but he is in perhaps the best form of his career this time around.
Group B Schedule (all times Eastern)
- England, Nov. 21, 6:30pm
- Wales, Nov. 25, 3:30pm
- USA, Nov. 29, 12:30am