Saturday, June 03, 2006

#14: Team Melli


Where? Middle East, South of the Caspian Sea, North of the Persian Gulf, bordering Iraq and Afghanistan.

How Big? Big. Bigger than Alaska. Population is large, more than twice the size of California.

Something I learned from the CIA factbook... I didn't think Iran had that much more oil reserves than the USA - more than 6 times the proven reserves. I also didn't know that the symbol in the center of the flag spelled out in a stylized form the word "Allah" in the form of a tulip, which is a symbol for martyrdom, apparently. The other script on the flag spells out ALLAH AKBAR (God is Great) over and over again. Also, Iran spends less (in raw dollars) on the military than Singapore, Mexico, the Netherlands, or Canada. That surprised me a lot, actually... I mean, Singapore?

Geopolitical significance? Of all the teams in the Cup, probably only the US is more significant. Iran sits on massive oil reserves. Iran has aggressively pursued development of weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons. Iran's government has vocally supported the elimination of the state of Israel. Iran supports the insurgency in Iraq. Iran is one of the largest funders of terrorism against Israel, as well as in locations all over the world (even Bolivia). But Iran also has a tradition of advancement and moderation - if the radical clerics that run the country ever were to lose power, Iran could become a near-superpower in the world.

Fun? Yeah, it's tons of fun. There was an interesting article in ESPN the Mag a few weeks or months ago about American basketball players in Iran's professional basketball league. One player in particular was like Huggy Bear, he had connections to people with connections with liquor and women and stuff. Awesome. I think the story of the "Assassins", from the word "Hashishiyya", smoking hashish before going on their killing missions is pretty interesting too.


This will have to be an unpopular choice, but I have a weird feeling about it. Just have a sense that Iran's going to do well and people are going to be kind of pissed, politically. There are always storylines in a World Cup, to bring the sport broader recognition, and I think this will be one of those storylines.

Iran's soccer heritage is decent. They won three straight Asian Cups back in the 60s and 70s, but they've only qualified for the World Cup twice before, 1978 and 1998, neither time advancing out of the group. In 1998, Iran earned the biggest win in the nation's history, a 2-1 win over the US.

Qualifying this time around was relatively simple, and Iran is quickly becoming one of the 3 or 4 best teams in Asia. They drew the opener of the final stage with Bahrain, but then won 4 straight to clinch a spot before losing the unnecessary final match at Japan.

Players on the roster are mostly based at home in Iran, though a few players have set up shop in Germany. It's a pretty young roster, so they could surprise opponents unfamiliar with Iranian football. It's known mostly for quick strike attacking, and features the world's top international scorer in Ali Daei, who is probably too old to really make too much of an impact, but you never know. Look out for Rahman Rezaei in the defense. Vahid Hashemian, known as the "Helicopter", could be the main scoring threat.

But the one to watch is in the midfield, Ali Karimi of Bayern Munich. A solid ballhandler who can push forward and score frequently, he'll be the one that scares other teams the most.

And this Iran team should scare the other teams in the group. I've already written that I don't think much of the Mexico team, and Angola is one of the worst teams in the cup. Also, Iran will surprise a lot of people with the support they'll have in the stands. Middle Eastern immigrants may show up in large numbers to support Iran in Germany. That'll be a shock to the system for Mexico and Angola.

And it's the opener with Mexico that should have the Tricolor worried. The crowd will be pro-Iran, believe it or not. Mexico's expectations and pressure are much greater than Iran's. I want to revise my earlier prediction here though. I don't think Mexico scores first, since I think that'd help them significantly. Instead, I think Iran gets the penalty first, and Mexico comes back to equalize, but the game ends in a draw, 1-1.

The second match is an even bigger surprise, as Iran's strength in the midfield and attacking confound Portugal, who expected an easy match. Iran scores first again, but gives up a late equalizer to Ronaldo. Another 1-1 result.

Iran then sort of controls their own destiny in the final match against Angola. And they come out hot, scoring twice in the first half. It holds up, and Iran advances with a 2-0 win.

Because Portugal beat Mexico and won twice, Iran sits second in the group. The Round of 16 draw isn't kind, facing the Group of Death survivors. And this time Iran faces Argentina.

The Argentines come out showing the skill, speed and strength on all parts of the field that make them favorites in the Cup this year, scoring twice in the first 15 minutes. Iran is shell shocked and they give up a third goal before the half. Argentina pulls things tight in the second half, but Argentina nets a fourth late when Iran is throwing everyone forward. 4-0 Argentina.

But that last defeat won't hurt too much, since Iran isn't expected to do much at all and just by advancing out of the group stage Iran becomes one of the biggest stories in the entire event. And they'll only get better as their young players mature. Look out for this team in 2010, unless world events cause a catastrophe in that nation.

If the World Cup were March Madness, Iran would be... Small conference school that advances farther than anyone would think, but also alienates most of the nation to where they don't even get any support simply as an underachiever. I can't think of a good example for this. I remember thinking not too fondly of those Wisconsin-Milwaukee teams a few years back because I read some articles about how people didn't like Bruce Pearl. Whatever.

If Iran were to lose three games in Germany, their President will probably just deny the games' existence, just like any other bad things that happened there.