Iran at the World Cup: Squad breakdown

Iran makes their sixth ever appearance at the FIFA World Cup this Fall in Qatar – 200 miles across the Persian Gulf. However, in the past they have never advanced into the Round of 16. Group B will challenge ‘Team Melli,’ as they anticipate three difficult matchups against England, Wales, and the United States of America. 

However, Iran has an elite lineup of players who will enter Qatar in their prime. Further, they are led by Carlos Queiroz – a European coach in his third World Cup cycle. Though many believe Iran to be the group’s underdogs, Qatar 2022 will mark their 3rd consecutive qualification, which further adds to their confidence entering the tournament. In conjunction with a first eleven that plays club football across Europe, Iran has never been more physically prepared for the grand stage. Mentally, however, therein lies a predicament for players. 

Iran Revolution: “This is not our national team.” 

Since September, civil unrest in Iran has ignited demands for regime change: the secular Iranian people overthrowing the despotic Islamic Republic. Globally, Iranian soccer fans continue to scrutinize ‘Team Melli,’ with many referring to Iran’s federation as a “joke” since it’s ruled by a military state and not independently by the people. As a result, Iranian players are in a dilemma. 

The spotlight is on each player as fans suspect the probability of affiliation between the players and the draconian government. Many Iranian fans, especially in the diaspora, would love nothing more than to see Iran defeated, three and out. It can be argued that the select fans who wish for Iran’s success support the Islamic Republic – a theocracy the masses denounce. 

Conversely, Iranian players have continued to show solidarity in the Champions League and Europa League. After scoring goals, dreary players non-celebratorily bow their heads and gesticulate their palms in mourning. Should Iran achieve its goals in the World Cup, this sentiment is expected to persist. In other words, it behooves the soccer world to ponder that if Iran succeeds in Group B, players will not smile or celebrate during the process. This demeanor could serve their disciplined performance. While considering the off-pitch context surrounding the side, we’ve broken down Iran’s key players ahead of the tournament. 

Breaking Down The Iran World Cup Squad 

Alireza Beiranvand #1 

Club: Persepolis FC Position: Goalkeeper 

Beiranvand, dubbed “The Boyhood Dream from the Streets of Tehran” by British pundits, is Iran’s towering goalkeeper. In the 2021-22 Portuguese Liga, the 6’5″ goalkeeper made eight starts for his club Boavista. At World Cup 2018, his remarkable save stopped Cristiano Ronaldo from scoring a penalty kick in Iran’s group match against Portugal. A goalkeeper’s manual dexterity is imperative to their ability to draw clean sheets. And Alireza Beiranvand continues to rise up the rankings for ‘Most Clean Sheets’ among all goalkeepers in Iran’s history with 30. 

Morteza Pouraliganji #8 

Club: Persepolis FC Position: Defender

Morteza Pouraliganji has been a veteran of the national team since 2015. The 6’1″ defender made six starts in the 2021 Chinese Super League for Shenzhen FC. He was a member of Team Melli during FIFA World Cup 2018 under Carlos Queiroz, marking his 2nd appearance on the grand stage. Due to his outstanding performances in 2015, he was voted to the ‘AFC Best 11’ team. Morteza was remembered for his remarkable defense against Cristiano Ronaldo in Russia in 2018. As a defender, he’s agile and dominant with aerial mobility. However, he can be beaten ‘1 v 1’. 

Milad Mohammadi #3 

Club: AEK Athens Position: Defender

The 28-year-old aggressive defender hails from the Greek Super League with AEK Athens alongside compatriot left-back Ehsan Hajsafi. In the 2021 season, Milad Mohammadi made six starts in 8 appearances for his club. He received one yellow and red card. Known for his durability, Mohammadi is making his 2nd appearance in the World Cup. He is most memorably known for a failed attempt at a front-flip throw-in against Spain in the final group match. Mohammadi is a seasoned player, making 78 caps in the Russian Premier League and 47 caps in Belgium’s First Division. Further, he occupies positional space on dead balls and set pieces. As a result, the defender has scored a total of 9 goals in his senior career. 

Vahid Amiri #11 

Club: Persepolis FC Position: Midfielder 

Vahid Amiri is a veteran of Team Melli, who plays for Persepolis. Apart from a 1-year stint with Turkish club Trabzonspor, Amiri’s tenure has been in the Persian Gulf Pro League. However, after a recent injury, the midfielder received back surgery. A period of convalescence estimated a 120-day recovery, arriving apropos for Iran’s debut against England on November 21st in Qatar. Amiri performed in Iran’s friendly against Senegal, recording an assist on a cross from the left flank that was finished by the subtle nod of striker Sardar Azmoun. Initially, Amiri’s tenacity was admired by fans of Team Melli. However, the #IranRevolution has scrutinized Amiri and exposed him to firm ties with the regime that Iranian fans denounce. Thus making him an antihero, among other players, on the roster. 

Alireza Jahanbakhsh #7 

Club: Feyenoord Position: Attacking Midfielder

Arguably the most elite player on Team Melli, Jahanbakhsh plays his club football for Feyenoord Rotterdam in the Dutch Eredivisie. In the 2021-22 season, he shot 20/55 while scoring four goals and making three assists. He’s known for his rapid speed and durability. Moreover, from 2018 to 2021, Alireza Jahanbakhsh made 50 appearances for the Premier League’s Brighton & Hove Albion. The attacking midfielder is the most expensive Iranian player in history and the unsung hero for the ‘Iranian Cheetahs.’ 

Saeed Ezatolahi #6

Club: Al Gharafa Position: Defensive Midfielder

The 25-year-old Saeed Ezatolahi is in form and in his prime. Having performed for the Qatar Star League’s Al Gharafa, this midfielder will be playing in familiar territory. Though he was sent to Al Gharafa on loan from Danish Superliga club Vejle Boldklub, he still made thirteen appearances for Al Gharafa this year. Saeed is the most agile midfielder on his team. Group B should expect his versatility, especially on positional play. Typically, he leads the counterattack. 

Moreover, he shields the defense and commits fouls. Opposing attackers should avoid dribbling near him at all costs. Do not be fooled by his jubilant expression; Ezatolahi is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. 

Ali Gholizadeh #17 

Club: Royal Charleroi SC Position: Forward/Winger

Ali Gholizadeh is a silver bullet in CQ’s arsenal. He’s another player performing in his prime, with 20 starts for Royal Charleroi SC – a Belgian First Division A club. He’s known for physicality, receiving seven yellow cards and one red card from 2021-2022. Meanwhile, he maintains an impressive goal-scoring ability, slotting seven times in his most recent season. Overall, he’s scored 21 goals in 126 appearances for Charleroi. 

Ehsan Hajsafi #3 

CaptainClub: AEK Athens Position: Midfielder/Defender

The veteran left defender will make his 3rd appearance in a World Cup. He played alongside two of his compatriots for AEK Athens in the Greek Super League, scoring one goal in 12 games during the 2021-22 season. Though he’s a natural defender, his athletic capabilities expand beyond the defensive line. Ehsan Hajsafi’s versatility allows him to perform as a winger by making attacks on set pieces and breakaways. Ehsan sneaks up of the flank. However, group B should be wary of his physicality. He is what I would call the Paolo Maldini of Iran. 

Sardar Azmoun #9 

Club: Bayer Leverkusen Position: Forward

Known for scoring sitters on the six-yard line, this 6’1″ striker is Team Melli’s unsung hero. Due to his aerial mobility, he’s been dubbed the ‘Iranian Zlatan’ by pundits. However, Sardar Azmoun could have lived up to his expectations during the 2018 edition of the World Cup. But that was four years ago. The Bundesliga forward has matured with an impetus to seek redemption. His turn & shoot abilities make him difficult to defend. Couple with his long legs; it takes work to intercept the ball from him. Azmoun can guard the ball with minimal movement in tight spaces. 

Azmoun features regularly in the Bundesliga for Leverksuen. Photo: Imago

Nonetheless, if Azmoun maintains prompt positioning, his brio can turn what seems like an impossible shot into a goal. As a result, Azmoun is ranked 3rd on Iran’s ‘All-Time Scorers’ with 41 goals. In addition, he ranks at #1 for the highest-scoring Iranian in the UEFA Champions League (six goals). But unfortunately, he tore his calf muscle in September. Therefore, extra defensive pressure on him could stifle his ability to attack. 

Karim Ansarifard #10

Club: Omonia Position: Forward 

Looks can be deceiving; Karim is faster than he appears. Representing the famed number ten jersey, Karim Ansarifard walks in the shoes of his predecessor, Ali Daei – the legendary forward who wore the celebrated #10 while maintaining the status of ‘All-Time Leading Goal-Scorer’ before Cristiano Ronaldo broke his record. Karim is known for his playmaking. Further, he performs with the poise of a proper ‘second forward.’ He scored the tying goal on a PK against Portugal in Russia ’18. He always kicks the ball midrange to the goalkeeper’s right as a righty. More recently, Karim displayed his quick run on a counterattack in the Europa League against Manchester United. He slotted the ball into the back of the net. Queiroz will rely on Karim as the centerpiece of Team Melli’s offensive positional playmaking. 

Majid Hosseini #19 

Club: Kayserispor Position: Centerback 

During the Russia 2018 group stage, Hosseini was a second-stringer, hungry for a spot to prove himself. After a starting defender got injured in Iran’s debut match against Morocco, the six-foot defender filled the center-back role. Then, the 26-year-old played 180 minutes against Portugal and Spain, making his presence known against Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrés Iniesta. As a result, he was signed by Trabzonspor, where he made 59 appearances until 2021. Since 2021, he’s made 36 caps for the Turkish outfit. More recently, Hosseini scored a goal in the Turkish Super League. A corner kick led to a deflection, and Hosseini capitalized with a leaping header, lunging over the opposition. Hosseini has a massive spring in his step. Group B should not underestimate him. 

Hossein Kaanani #13 

Club: Al Ahli Position: Centerback

Another center defender, the 6’1″ Kanaani, boasts an intimidating physiology. Moreover, his aggressiveness is utilized with accuracy and precision, as opposed to passion and aggression. In other words, Kaanani can pummel an opposing striker with a clean slide tackle that sends the opponent headfirst into the grass. His defensive tackles are deemed as ‘all ball.’ As a result, what looks like a foul ends up legal. Further, Kaanani will be at home in Qatar. Since 2021, the 28- year-old has made 27 appearances for Al Ahli in the Qatar Stars League. 

Nevertheless, controversy abounds. When Team Melli donned black track jackets during national anthems against Senegal, Kaanani’s passionate lip-sync of the Islamic Republic’s national anthem made it clear that he does not stand in solidarity with the Iran regime change movement. 

As a result, this player, though integral to Iran’s defensive line, will not be a fan favorite. However, neither Wales, England, nor USMNT should be aligning less physical players against his prowess. If Kaanani can make tough players like Darwin Núñez and Luis Suárez look limp and ineffectual, it’s safe to keep vulnerable players away from him at any cost. Perhaps, a striker can force Kaanani to chase down the flank, since he lacks pacing. Thus, creating space in the center for an attack. Conversely, if Kaanani dominates center-back, it might serve the interests of England, Wales, and USMNT to attack unobtrusively from the wing. Especially in ‘1 v 1’ situations late in the match. 

Controversially, Kaanani’s club Al Ahli has mandated that the defender return to Qatar. As a result, Kaanani has not been participating in Carlos Queiroz’s recent training camp. The Iran coach has criticized this decision by the Qatar Stars League since Kaanani’s absence in training affects strategies. 

Saman Ghoddos #14

Club: Brentford FC Position: Attacking Midfielder 

This midfielder is arguably the most underrated player. First and foremost, Ghoddos was born and bred in Malmö, Sweden. Therefore, he’s a European footballer who rose through the ranks of the Swedish youth system. Further, he initially played for the Sweden national team before transferring his national allegiance to Iran in 2017 since his parents are Iranian immigrants. As a result, Group B is dealing with a player who has never spent a day of life growing up in Iran. Therefore, Ghoddos is wholly a European footballer. He plays for Brentford in the EPL, where he’s made 64 appearances since 2020. 

Ghoddos can erupt using conserved energy and strike from outside the penalty box. He’s the type of player that will snipe an incredible shot, catching the goalkeeper sleeping. Undoubtedly, Ghoddos has tricks up his sleeve. Most of his game revolves around making quick give & go passes. He utilizes the width of the field, creating space down the center for positional play. As a result, strikers make vertical runs, creating holes in the defense. However, when you least expect it, he creates space on hold-up plays, then suddenly strikes into the goalmouth. 

Defenders should be wary of giving Ghodoss space on the field to maneuver. He deceives the opposition into thinking he’s a playmaker. On the contrary, Ghoddos is a sniper, ready to put a bullet into the target. 

Mehdi Taremi #9 

Club: FC Porto Position: Forward

During the latest episode of Eric Wynalda’s Sirius XM show ‘Counter Attack’, the former USMNT striker emphasized that “Mehdi Taremi is what I have nightmares about,” further adding that he wakes up in “cold sweats” about Taremi and that “people don’t realize how good he is.” 

Arguably the most blistering player in Iran is the 6’2″, 29-year-old Taremi – the FC Porto mainstay who scored 21 goals and made 12 assists in his most recent season. Moreover, Taremi’s impressive shot ratio of 41/98 should alarm Group B. More recently, Taremi has continued to display his goal-scoring in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid. Taremi has generated momentum. Undoubtedly, he will channel it into the World Cup.

However, his disappointing performance in Russia 2018 – where he missed a golden opportunity for a game-tying shot against Spain – should provide the impetus for him to regain his honor and shine as Team Melli’s much-needed finisher. Taremi scored four goals and made two assists during his AFC Asian qualifiers on Iran’s road to Qatar. 

At the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it should not come as a surprise if he steals everyone’s thunder and takes the spotlight. Mehdi Taremi can stand 6’2″ tall with the maneuverability of a 5’7″ player. Further, he can carry the team’s weight on his shoulders, with the power to single-handedly take Iran into the knockout stage. His aerial mobility extends up to seven feet tall; a lethal mix considering his low center of gravity. 

In 60 caps for Iran, he’s scored 28 goals. Since joining FC Porto in 2020, Taremi has slotted 42 goals. These attributes serve as a lethal weapon; a silver-bullet looking to snipe the goalmouth of England, Wales, and the USMNT. Therefore, Group B should exercise caution when defending and man-mark him for the match. 

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