A turbulent World Cup qualification campaign ended in bitter disappointment and controversy for Iran.

By Adel Ferdowisipour in Tehran
When the draw was made for the final round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers, even the most pessimistic supporters of Iran’s national team believed that their heroes would make it through to the 2010 finals in South Africa, at the very least via the play-offs.

Astonishingly, though, they could only finish fourth out of five teams in a bitterly disappointing campaign that was marred by managerial upheaval and ended shrouded in controversy.

Political events appeared to spill over into Iran’s final game, against South Korea in Seoul, when six players took to the pitch wearing green wristbands, allegedly in support
of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the defeated presidential election candidate.

However, all the green wristbands had been removed when the sides re-appeared for the second half and the team’s executive manager, Mansour Pourheidari, later claimed that the wristbands were a religious symbol, used by players to motivate them, and once they realised that they could be mistaken for a political gesture the players took them off.

The incident caused a worldwide media stir, and the subsequent retirement of star players Ali Karimi and Mehdi Mahdavikia was taken in some quarters to be a reaction to the alleged incident in the Korea game. But as far as most football pundits were concerned, the truth was both players were far from their best and the retirement of these two veterans was inevitable following Iran’s failure to qualify for the World Cup.

Indeed, midfielder Javad Nekounam and striker Masoud Shojaei, who also wore green wristbands, both plan to carry on playing for the national side.

As for Iran’s failure to qualify, alarm bells had started ringing in March with the defeat by Saudi Arabia in front of more than 100,000 fans in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. This catastrophe needed a scapegoat…and who better than coach Ali Daei?

The best-known Iranian football figure paid the ultimate price for his perceived arrogance and non-interaction with the media, and he was sacked after his first defeat by a federation that had previously vowed to support him through thick and thin. Many believed that his sacking was more of a political gesture than a footballing decision.

Fans’ disbelief
After negotiations with French coach Philippe Troussier came to nothing, the federation announced the appointment in early April of Mohammad Mayelikohan, who had previously been national coach from 1995 until 1997. It was a decision that left most Iran football fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief, yet Mayelikohan’s tenure was to last just 15 days – without him even holding a single training session.

The outspoken Mayelikohan had previously voiced concerns about match-fixing and had accused a rival coach, Amir Ghalenoei of Esteghlal, of inciting fans to attack him. Such statements made it easier for the federation to dispense with his services and a day later Afshin Ghotbi became Iran’s third coach in three weeks.

Ghotbi, a 45-year-old Iranian who grew up in the USA, had been on the verge of being appointed national coach on two previous occasions, only for Daei and Mayelikohan to pip him to the post. A former assistant to Guus Hiddink, Dick Advocaat and Pim Verbeek with the South Korea national team, Ghotbi had returned home after a 30-year absence and steered Persepolis to the league championship after a six-year trophy draught.

Now, finally installed as national coach, he faced three life-or-death World Cup qualifiers: against North Korea, UAE and South Korea.

The first game was in Pyongyang and although the goalless stalemate with North Korea may have seemed a respectable result on paper, it did not look to be enough for qualification. However, a solitary goal at home to UAE by Karimi, whose bust-up with Daei earlier in the campaign had led to him being dropped, revived Iran’s qualification hopes.

Victory in the final game against the already-qualified South Koreans would have meant a play-off berth at least, and Iran went ahead through Shojaei early in the second half. But an equaliser from Manchester United’s Park Ji-sung nine minutes from time made qualification dependent on the result of the game between Saudi Arabia and North Korea.

A 0-0 draw in Riyadh confirmed Iran’s elimination and fans who had been dreaming of the World Cup finals were left with the nightmare of messing up what had originally looked a simple qualification task.