Team Melli is in the World Cup for the second time in a row and the third time in four World Cups. Led by stars such as Sardar Azmoun and Ashkan Dejagah, and the consistent and stellar coaching of Carlos Quieroz. Iran’s soccer team didn’t have to travel far for the World Cup, which starts this week. They had to just fly over the Caspian Sea to arrive in Russia. The site of their first game will be in Saint Petersburg.
To gain further insight into Team Melli ahead of their game against Morocco, we caught up with Team Melli and International Soccer expert and Anesthesiologist Dr. Omid Emam. Dr. Emam has watched and analyzed every Team Melli match for the last 20 years. He is not just a casual fan who reads the boxscore. He orders every game and watches each one as a scout or coach would. He knows the players, the history of Team Melli, their weakness, strengths and the best formations and tactics needed for them to win each game. Dr. Emam, despite his humility, is arguably the most well versed Team Melli expert outside of Iran.
To catch up with Dr. Omid Emam and gain insight into Team Melli, we did a Q+A with him recently in Irvine, California.
Iman Sadri : Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to provide insight on Team Melli.
Omid Emam : First of all. Let me say that I am honored to give my humble opinion regarding our beloved Team Melli. I am by no means an expert but I have played soccer and I having been a die hard follower of TM for decades. Prior to getting to the questions let me give a little background regarding the great job our coach and players have done.
Carlos Queiroz has been our coach for the past 7 years and he qualified us to consecutive World Cups for the first time in our history. He has gradually introduced many younger players to the team and has evolved our team to the tallest and youngest team in Asia. We have over a dozen players playing in Europe, the most in Iran’s history, some of which weren’t invited or didn’t make the final cut, including our keeper Alireza Haghighi from the previous World Cup. Kaveh Rezaei had a great season in Belgium. Our former captain Javad Nekounam retired after breaking Ali Daei’s record for most caps for Iran.
Andranik Teymourian our Armenian beast in the midfield was eventually removed from the squad. Seyed Jalal, one of my favorite players of all time for Iran and my favorite defender in Iran’s history was crossed off the list as he is now 36. Mehrdad Pouladi one of our best players in the last World Cup was put aside relating to his military service requirement. The lack of cooperation by domestic coaches, lack of support from IFF and inadequate preparation campaigns led to Carlos asking him to resign from his post. Luckily for us, his resignation wasn’t accepted and he will be our soccer sage with all of his experience and knowledge. Not only is Carlos a great coach, but he loves Iran and he loves his players. He has truly endured a hostile environment to bring joy to 80 Million Team Melli fans. We are very fortunate to have him. He has instilled confidence, unity and team spirit in our players. He expects players to defend first. He expects every player to defend. Players like Karim, Taremi, and Amiri who fight for every ball and press up high.
Queiroz has accomplished the transformation of Team Melli with a lot of obstacles. The domestic coaches in Iran with the exception of Ali Daei, the legend who holds the record for most International goals scored, have not cooperated with our preparation plans. Ali Daei sacrificed a lot for Team Melli in his playing days. He put his starting position in Germany in jeopardy to come play for Team Melli and he was willing to release his players as coach to go to Team Melli camp. Branko, and other domestic coaches didn’t release the players for preparation camps. In addition, our Friendly with Greece was cancelled. Iran did have two very important matches against Algeria and Tunisia to simulate the Morocco game. We also had a good friendly games against Turkey and Uzbekistan.
IS : What strategies can Iran use to beat Morocco ?
Omid Emam : Carlos knows how Morocco plays and he knows how to beat Morocco, which will not be an easy task. I believe our best chance of success is to get all 3 points from the first match. Our coach is a mastermind and I truly do not know what he will do for the game, but I am certain that he has a plan to beat Morocco and he will execute that plan. If I could predict his plan, so could Herve Renard the Moroccan coach. Morocco is by no means a pushover. Most of the Moroccan players play in Europe, some of them were actually born or raised in Europe. Morocco plays beautiful Football, they rely mostly on Counter-Attacks and quickly transition from defending to attacking quickly. They play very well on the ground and quickly and accurately pass the ball around with quick touches. Morocco deserves our respect but they are definitely beatable.
IS : How can Iran win against Spain and Portugal ?
Omid Emam : Spain and Portugal need no introductions as they are powerhouses. We do have Carlos who coached Portugal including Ronaldo and Real Madrid. He is very knowledgeable of every team in our group and he will have a plan for each game to maximize our chances of success to advance to the next round. All I can do is guess what Carlos will have in mind for the game. There are many variables that I do not know like how fit our several injured players including are, Ashkan Dejagah. What I predict however is that we will play more offensively against Morocco to try and get 3 points from them. We will especially attack the last 10 minutes of each half when our opponents are tired. Against Spain and Portugal we will let them dominate possession of the ball and rely on counters. Like how we played against Argentina.
IS: Who do you predict will be Iran’s starting Goalkeeper ?
Omid Emam : Iran’s number one Goalkeeper has been Alireza Beiranvand. He has good reflexes and is able to start counters for us with his large throws. As we saw four years ago, when surprisingly Haghighi became our number one keeper and performed well, Amir Abedzadeh the Eagle of Asia, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh’s son may get the nod and start in place of Beiranvand. Amir plays for Maritimo in Portugal and has played well. An interesting fact is that Peter Schmeichel’s son, Kasper is also part of the Danish squad. Two son’s followed their father’s footsteps and are part of the World Cup squad as goalkeepers for their respective countries. I believe Beiranvand will be our starting keeper in this World Cup, but we may see Amir instead. I would be surprised to see Rashid Mazaheri to start in goal. So best guess Alireza Beiranvand will be our starting keeper.
IS : Who do you predict will be the started Right Back ?
Omid Emam : I believe we will have different lineups for each game. We have a very deep squad and can afford to let some players rest depending on the tactics and plans that Carlos has for each game. Since we need to get all three points from Morocco I believe in Right Back we will have Ramin Rezaian who plays in Belgium to get the start. He is excellent going forward and gives nice crosses. offensively he is our best option in Right Back. He is very fit. He has good pace and can track back to cover his post. We have Pejman Montazeri and Khanzadeh as other options but I believe for the Morocco game Ramin Rezaian will start.
IS : Who do you predict will be the started Central Back ?
Omid Emam : Our Central Back duo will most likely be Roozbeh Cheshmi and Pour Aliganji. although many combinations are possible, I believe these two will be our two starting central defenders. Both are very tall and will have a commanding presence in set pieces and will dominate with their aerial ability. Carlos may opt to have my preferred pair Pejman Montazeri and Pour Aliganji who have played together instead of Cheshmi or he can have the 21 year old Majid Hosseini pair with Pejman as they both play in Esteghlal but I believe Cheshmi and Pour Aliganji will get the nod. Majid Hosseini played very well for our youth team and has international experience at the youth level. Cheshmi can play defensive Midfield or CB. Pour Aliganji and Pejman also played as CDM. One thing we know for sure is Carlos knows defenders and he always brings a defense first team. Many including myself are surprised Seyed Jalal was excluded, but he hadn’t used him much lately and he is 36.
IS : Who do you think will play Left Back ?
Omid Emam : Left Back will undoubtedly be Milad Mohammadi who plays in Russia. He has been a great replacement for Mehrdad Pouladi who we lost unfortunately due to a Military service requirement obligation. Milad is very fast and is a good moving forward. He is an excellent one on one defender.
IS : Who will play Midfield ?
Omid Emam : Our best defensive midfielder without question is Saeed Ezatollahi who plays in Russia. Unfortunately, he received a Red Card in a meaningless game against Syria and will not play against Morocco. Ali Karimi lost the World Cup due to injury so the CDM position will most likely be Esteghlal’s Omid Ebrahimi. I expect Ehsan Hajsafi to help Ebrahimi defensively.
IS : Who do you think will start at Right Wing ?
Omid Emam : Our right wing position is the easiest one to predict. Alireza Jahanbakhsh has been playing in the Dutch league and this year he won the Golden Boot in the Dutch league. He will be our offensive star. My favorite current Team Melli player is Masoud Shojaei. Anyone who watched our heartbreaking game against Argentina last World Cup, will remember the fast counter attacks orchestrated by Shojaei himself. His passing and vision are by far the best in our team. This is the third World Cup for Masoud and we will need his leadership and experience in the midfield. He will be our CAM, although we have other options like Ashkan Dejagah and Saman Ghodoos. Masoud reminds me of Riquelme for those familiar with the former Villareal player.
IS : Who do you think will play Left Wing ?
Omid Emam : The left winger depends on how fit Mehdi Taremi is. He is recovering from an injury and if he is ready he will get the nod. He is a handful for defenders. He presses well, has good aerial ability, good pace and is an unpredictable player upfront. The combination between him and Sardar Azmoun has been a successful one. If Taremi isn’t ready Vahid Amiri, Mehdi Torabi or Karim Ansarifard may get the nod.
IS : Who will be our our starting central forward ?
Omid Emam : Our starting central forward will most likely be Sardar Azmoun. He has been scoring goals at a remarkable rate for us. He plays for Rubin Kazan in Russia, the venue for our second game against Spain by the way. We have many options upfront including Gucci, Karim Ansarifard, and Mehdi Taremi. I believe Sardar Azmoun will be our starter although Karim Ansarifard may be a second option as he plays with Hajsafi in Greece. I doubt Gucci will be our starter.
IS : Who do you predict will be our starting forward ?
Omid Emam : As far as offense is concerned we aren’t short of options. Sardar will be our starting forward, but if he draws too much attention, Jahanbakhsh, Taremi, Ansarifard, Ghodoos, Ashkan Dejagah, Masood Shojaei, Hajsafi will all have a chance to net a goal for us. I believe the most important player for us both offensively and defensively will be Omid Ebrahimi. He will be filling in for the suspended Ezatollahi. He will need to help defend and make the transition to offense during our counters. He and Masoud Shojaei will be the key to our offense to link up play with our players up front.
IS : Which player from Iran do you think will be an X factor and why?
Omid Emam : Taremi and Hajsafi will be Iran’s X factors. With Sardar and Jahanbakhsh commanding so much attention, Taremi and Hajsafi will have to push up to take advantage of a well timed and placed pass.
IS : What strategies and formations can Iran use to beat Morocco, Portugal and Spain?
Omid Emam : Each game will be different. For Spain and Portugal we will play similar to our Argentina game. Take away spaces, allow Spain and Portugal to dominate possession and rely on counters to score. Iran can defend well as a team, but we need 3 points from our first match, so expect a more offensive game from us in our first game with pressing up high and especially attacking the last 10 minutes of each half.
IS : Objectively speaking how far do you think you Iran will go?
Omid Emam : Iran isn’t expected to advance as we are in the Group of Death. Spain are winners of the 2010 World Cup. Portugal are the winners of the Euro Cup and they have a healthy and ‘in his prime’ Cristiano Ronaldo, the Player of the Year winner. Morocco aren’t a pushover either. We have a tough group but Iran can go to round of 8 if things go their way. If Iran advances to the 2nd round they will face Russia, Egypt, Saudi, or Uruguay which are beatable teams.
IS : Other than Iran of course, which team do you think could win or should win the entire World Cup?
Omid Emam : There are many strong teams, but Germany, Spain, France and Portugal are the favorites respectively. After Iran I’d want Argentina to win. Messi is as Carlos puts it, ‘Not human, he is from another planet.’
IS : Do you think there’s a legitimate chance a player from Team Melli can be called up to a first rate club team?
Omid Emam : Alireza Jahanbakhsh. He will move to a top club. There is already a lot of interest in him. We are all excited to see our beloved team play later this week Let’s all cheer our team on and support them. Ma gol mikhaim yalla, yalla, yalla yalla. Long live Iran.
Contact Dr. Omid Emam at email@example.com
Iman Sadri is the founder of @LASmileMagazine and @ThePersianObserver