By Ashkan Zadeh, Staff Reporter, The Pawprint
The Iranian national football team, also known as ‘Team Melli’ and the ‘Persian Leopards’, had the fastest qualification to the World Cup in the history of any Asian country. Team Melli was placed in pot 1 of group A in the final round of World Cup qualifiers and had to compete against South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, after a dramatic finish to top group C in the second stage of the AFC World Cup qualifiers. Dragan Skocic, the current manager of Team Melli and the successor to Marc Wilmots, steered the team from a hopeless third-place position to winning the group and making it to the final round.
The final stage of qualifications consists of two groups of six teams, with the two top teams in each group booking their spot in the World Cup, and the two third place teams going to the fourth round of qualifications. As of now, both Iran and South Korea have booked their place in the World Cup, leaving the UAE, Iraq, and Lebanon to fight for third place. Iran showed their magic in this stage of qualifiers, having won seven games and drawing one against the ‘Tigers of Asia’, South Korea. The Persian Leopards will be taking on the Tigers of Asia on March 24th in Seoul, to see who will top group A.
Dragan Skocic transformed Team Melli after being Marc Wilmots successor. The Croatian coach reshaped the team by introducing a number of players such as Sadegh Moharrami, as well as dropping multiple players from the squad such as Masoud Shojaei, Omid Ebrahimi, and Ramin Rezaeian. However, the reason for the team’s success comes from Skocic’s background in psychology. When comparing the team’s current results to that of previous coaches, they perform well under pressure, have comeback from two near losses, and have displayed their confidence and comfort on the pitch. Skocic has also brought discipline back to the team, emphasizing to the players that the team comes before any individual player. This was especially portrayed in his conflict with Mehdi Taremi, where they had an argument over social media, and the Porto striker was left uninvited for two important matches against Lebanon and Syria.
“Mehdi Taremi is a wonderful player but there are values that we have to respect,” Skocic stated, “The National Team belong to all Iranian people not a special player and coach but everyone should respect the values,” Such remarks emphasize the values Skocic places on discipline and teamplay compared to individual players.
Iran has never made it past the group stages in the World Cup, but Skocic has made it clear that he plans to change this. The closest Iran has come to passing the group stage was in the 2018 World Cup when Iran won against Morocco, drew against Portugal, and lost 1-0 against Spain.