FIFA - A resurgent Iran continued Asia’s dominance of the AFC/OFC Challenge Cup with a convincing 3-0 victory against New Zealand in Tehran on Sunday. Two first half goals from Ali Karimi and a third from 17-year-old Hossein Kaabi gave the home side an easy victory in the contest played between the AFC (alternately the winners of the Asian Cup or Asian games) and OFC champions.
Although envisaged as a two-leg, home-and-away match, the Cup’s two editions - Japan defeated Australia 3-0 in the first two years ago – have been played in the country of the Asian champions.
The Iraq War and SARS virus left organisers with no alternative but to schedule the single match in Tehran in the only available slot - October. The odds were already stacked against the All Whites before coach Mick Waitt made the brave decision to take an inexperienced side to the Iranian capital, handing out three new caps to Che Bunce, Leo Bertos and Tony Lochhead. With 50,000 fans creating a barrage of noise in the intimidating Azadi stadium, it was certain to be a true test of their ability to cope with international football.
Those fans had even more to shout about as Iran not only welcomed back one of their top stars Mehdi Mahdavikia, who last played against the Republic of Ireland in the second-leg of the play-off for a spot at the 2002 FIFA World Cup™, but also coach Branco Ivankovic, who had led Iran to that Asian Games title last year. The Croat was drafted in just ten days previously after Hooman Shahrokhi had been sacked following the disastrous away defeat to Jordan 2-3 in the Asian Cup.
After a near two-year absence, Mahdavikia was quick to endear himself to his legions of admirers. His stunning 25-yard drive mid-way through the first half was spilled by Kiwi keeper Mark Paston to the feet of Karimi who, without thinking twice, buried the rebound. The two players combined again eight minutes later as the Hamburg midfielder released Karimi. This time, the striker who plies his trade in the United Arab Emirates with Al Ahli, rounded the keeper before slotting the ball into an empty net.
With captain Ryan Nelsen in an unfamiliar midfield role, the All Whites were finding it difficult to keep possession against the fleet-footed Persians. And, inevitably, they made it 3-0 just after the hour when the nippy Kaabi lost his marker to slip the ball past Paston and send the home fans wild.
Captain Ali Daei could have made it four in the final minute but Paston superbly saved his left-foot strike.
After the match Iran coach Ivancovic said his only trick was to bring back the same tactics that had served the team so well at the 2002 Asian Games.
“This wasn’t a single person’s victory but the team’s. It was as if we breathed together," he said. “I hope that we will be even better against Lebanon and North Korea.”
In their first outing since June when they were convincingly beaten three times at the FIFA Confederations Cup, New Zealand boss Waitt was generous in further defeat.
"I’ve got to congratulate the Iranians," he said. "They have a good team and they deserved the cup."