Shrinking Kit, Tiny Boots and No Friendlies (or How Iran defied the odds at the World Cup)

Sadly, the World Cup group stages are behind us now; I say sadly because it means the days of watching three matches per day are gone. The games have been filled with great skill, bad play, shock results, bad refereeing, controversies, lasers, biting and a whole host of other talking points.

As the group stages are over, we can reflect on the performances of each team.

Costa Rica deserve a special mention for winning what looked to be, on paper at least, an extremely tough group. Similarly, Algeria deserve to be congratulated for making it to the knockout stages for the first time ever, especially when you remember that they didn’t even score a goal in the last World Cup. As do Nigeria, who have managed to qualify from their group for the first time in 16 years.

But I think that one team in particular deserves a special mention for overcoming a whole host of obstacles just in order to play in the first place. That team is Iran.

Sure, they didn’t win a game; but by no means were they the whipping boys the bookmakers expected them to be before the tournament started. Iran surprised everyone, possibly including themselves, with their performance against Argentina, where Iran were excellent in defence during the first half, and then took the game to Argentina in the second half, and can consider themselves unlucky not to have won that game. Rarely has a World Cup goal been crueller than the one Lionel Messi scored in injury time to mean that Iran were denied the point that was the least that they deserved from that game.

Iran went into the last game of their group with a chance of qualifying, which is more than can be said for Spain or England, though a disappointing 3-1 defeat against Bosnia and Herzegovina meant that Iran finished bottom of Group F.

But it’s the hardship and, at times, utter chaos, that has been the Iran team’s preparation which makes the performance of the team in the World Cup all the more remarkable.

Iran qualified for the World Cup in June 2013. For most nations, especially the wealthy European nations, preparations for the World Cup begin as soon as qualification is secured. After the draw, most national associations will quickly finalise arrangements for where the teams will be based, where they will train, pre-tournament training camps, all logistical issues and pre-tournament friendlies.

So did Iran do that? Well, no.

Iran have faced a whole host of problems since qualification was secured. The biggest problem that Iran have faced in getting to the World Cup is a lack of funds, which has meant that Iran have had to prepare for the World Cup on the cheap.

The Iranian team largely relies on government funding as their main source of income. However, economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community over fears that uranium enrichment programs undertaken by Iran are for the development of nuclear weapons, rather than for domestic power stations, have meant that in recent years the country’s revenues have been halved, so there is much less money to go around.

As a result, the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) has struggled to receive money from the government, but the sanctions have also meant that they can’t receive money from any of their internationally-based sponsors, or money from the Asian Federation, who were willing to give the FFIRI $1m.

While other nations were playing friendlies, Iran were unable to find anyone willing to play against them, at least for the amount of money they could pay, in a friendly until they played Guinea in Tehran in March this year. Guinea won 1-2. Following that game, they had a pre-World Cup training camp in Austria, where they played out scoreless draws against Belarus and Montenegro and drew 1-1 with Angola.      

By contrast, South Korea, the nation Iran beat to qualify for the World Cup (South Korea qualified by virtue of finishing second in their group, by having a superior goal difference to Uzbekistan) played 13 friendlies in the run-up to the World Cup, including games against fellow World Cup qualifiers Costa Rica, Mexico, USA, Greece and Ghana.

This left Iran at a huge disadvantage, as it meant that there were virtually no opportunities to experiment with tactics or different players, and that Iran’s players were not exposed to playing against a higher level of opposition.  

Javad Nekounam, the Iran captain, said “None of the promises turned into realities. If we did not have good preparation games until the games start, there shouldn’t be any expectations. Whatever happens, the authorities must be held responsible for the results.”

As well as the problems arranging friendlies, Iran have been foiled in their attempts to host training camps since qualification. They had to cancel one in Portugal last year, which would’ve included a friendly against Ghana, due to a lack of funds. They then tried again to host one in South Africa in April, which descended into farce, when only 11 players turned up because, although the Iranian season had ended early to allow for preparation for the World Cup; the camp clashed with the Asian Champions League and teams refused to release their players.

Even the training camp that they did manage to hold in Austria before the World Cup was farcical, this time because of the training kit. There were claims that the training kit provided to the Iranian players was ill-fitting, unsuitable for playing in the humid conditions of Brazil and of such poor quality that the shirts and socks shrank in the wash. There were also complaints that the wrong size boots were being provided for players.

These problems have left Iran’s coach, the former Real Madrid and Portugal manager, and Manchester United assistant, Carlos Queiroz furious with the FFIRI. He said:

"If you give shoes sized 34 to somebody that wears size 44 he cannot walk five meters... If you have one tracksuit per player, morning and afternoon it cannot be good”. Queiroz also bemoaned the lack of preparation time he had with the team, saying “Those who think Iran's national team will be successful with only 14 days of preparation are either crazy or living in Disneyland”

Several players joined Queiroz in complaining about the kit. "They give us large size socks and after two days and being washed they shrink to a small size," striker Karim Ansarifard was quoted as saying.

Uhlsport, the German kit manufacturers who supply Iran with their kits have denied supplying Iran with second-rate equipment. The claim that players have not received sufficient soccer jerseys for the tournament is wrong and absurd," the company said.

"We have used the same standards for Iran as we use for every other association or club that we work with."

There have been some suggestions from some that, as a money-saving exercise, the kit Iran were using is not exactly ‘genuine’.

Persepolis winger Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, whose former club Sepahan used Uhlsport equipment of the "best quality", hinted that he believes the Iranian side was being given inferior quality kits.

"The gear that we have now, we really don't know what it is...We are really tired of talking about this. I don't understand why everyone is defending it. When there is something wrong, we should admit that there is a problem”.

Queiroz’s real frustration is that he thought the days where Iran were completely unprepared for international football were behind them. When Queiroz arrived he had to fight with the FFIRI to get new nets, balls and kit, so that the national team wasn’t a step down in terms of facilities for the players.

He has also set about reforming the national team; He introduced detailed training plans and itineraries, which were far more detailed than had been used by Iran teams in the past. He also came up with a more efficient way of preparing the team on matchdays.

He also improved the quality of players available to Iran, by bringing in players of Iranian descent who were playing elsewhere in the world, like Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, who had grown up in Germany, in order to increase the pool of players he had available to pick from.

History will tell us that Iran finished the 2014 World Cup with only one point, gained in a truly dire game against Nigeria, with only one goal scored. It will also tell us that Carlos Queiroz resigned following the defeat by Bosnia, because his contract was due up and there was no sign of it being renewed, which was always unlikely because the high wages that Queiroz earns were too much for the cash-strapped Iranian federation to continue to pay.

What history won’t tell us is that Iran arrived at this World Cup as probably the worst prepared team in the competition. It won’t tell us that Iran were expected to be heavily beaten in every game, but instead performed far above expectations, and were desperately unlucky to lose to Argentina, the team which stands a good chance of winning the whole tournament.  

It also won't tell us that despite everything, Iran made their fans proud.