Persianfootball.com – TEHRAN, Iran’s national under-17 team is coming off another successful u-17 World Cup tournament in the United Arab Emirates that saw them reach the knockout stage of the tournament for the second time in four years.
Coming off the heels of a defensively mature and disciplined group stage showing, Ali Doustimehr’s men were unlucky to matchup with the later champions Nigerians, who displayed an offensive pedigree of the highest order, in the Round of 16 that saw them crash-out with a 4-1 score line.
Despite not being able to withstand the onslaught from the offensively -potent Africans, the well-supported Iranian side should hold their heads up high. A week before the tournament started, the Iranian team had to reel from having six of their players unexpectedly cut for concerns that they will not be able to bypass FIFA-administered MRI tests that confirm ages, and were therefore not able to accompany the team.
Out of the missing six, four players were regular starters and formed the backbone of the Iranian offense. Perhaps the starkest omission was Ali Rigi, the technical and speedy central attacking midfielder who had a knack for scoring goals and worked well with Amir Mazloum to form an impressive frontline tandem.
This self-enforced disqualification of the six players by the Iranian Football Federation (IRIFF) sent shockwaves throughout the team as Ali Doustimehr scrambled to create a makeshift offense that was not in sync and had lacked match praxis to carve out their own particularized niche. This lack of familiarity upfront was on full display throughout Iran’s campaign as the Iranian players squandered many chances and failed to capitalize on golden opportunities.
Mazloum, who would often be on the finishing end of Rigi’s pinpoint passes and space-creating dribbles, perhaps suffered the most as the hard-working talismanic striker was burdened to carry out both the playmaking and scoring role, and was unable to optimize his talent. In contrast, the untouched defensive line remained one of the tournament’s best, with Captain Majid Hosseini dominantly manning the backline and defensive midfielder Saeed Ezataholli, was able to masterfully track-back and lessen the pressure on Iran’s goal.
The next Mahdavikia?
To help us climb this tall mountain was Mehdi Mahdavikia, surely a hero for many of the u-17 players, as he dually served as an inspirational figure and helper. Mahdavikia – who continues to enrich Iran’s footballing landscape with his presence, expertise and unending service despite hanging up his playing cleats last year – was crucial in resourcefully tapping-into his network and setting-up much needed friendly tournaments in Europe for the youth side. Perhaps Iran’s greatest European export, Mahdavikia accompanied and stayed with the team during the team’s entire tenure in the Persian Gulf Emirate, which was surely morale-boosting for the players and bolstered their game-readiness.
Mahdavikia, much like Hashemian, are being counted on by Iranian fans to bring about a paradigm shift in Iran’s football and help navigate Iran’s next generation of players to unchartered territories, and help ease and guide their passage into European clubs before they hit their 20s, like Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan) and Ali-Reza Jahanbaksh (N.E.C.).
As an Iranian football fan, one is often asking himself, when Iran can ever reach the full potential? Or for those who are superstitious, when will the starts align for the talented Persian Gulf country? In a country that has an obsolete sporting infrastructure, no properly designed scouting network, and an underdeveloped sports culture where bullies and loudmouths profit and succeed, hope and great expectations become a dangerous and frustrating endeavor. Case in point is Iran’s inability to send players from their highly talented 2009 u-17 team that outplayed and beat the like of the Netherlands, to Europe to nurture and cultivate their great raw talent.
The most common question in the psyche of Iranian football fans is: what could have been? Kaveh Rezaei was one of the best strikers in the world for his age groups, and after a splendid campaign has failed to make his mark and is languishing in Saipa FC where he has yet to rekindle his goal-scoring knack. Payam Sadeghian, who has proven, week-in-and-week-out to the be one of best player at Tehran giants Persepolis FC, has yet to make his way into Europe; and Milad Gharibi is wasting-away on Ali Daei’s bench. If not living up to your potential was a tragedy, then Iranian football is truly Shakespearian.
Regardless of the incredible hurdles in our way and this historical consciousness that is so palpable, the looming question for Iranian football fans is: what is next? After outplaying the Argentinians, Canadians and Austrians, what can we be hopeful for? If the u-17 World Cup is telling, then three players stand-out and can stamp their presence in European club football soon.
The youngest player to make his debut in the Iran Pro League at the tender age of 16, Ezataholli is perhaps Iran’s most highly-touted prospect, ever. The tall and physically imposing midfielder was able to make his mark in the center of midfield by winning balls, dictate the tempo of play, distribute to his teammates and unleash thunderous shots from outside the penalty box.
The Malavan man was constantly praised by commentators, praised by FIFA associated websites and articles, and has been already linked to European giants Inter Milan and Rubin Kazan. True Iranian football fans can’t but help track Ezataholli’s progress, as he has potential to do great things and Iran’s future may be closely tied to his destiny.
The less acclaimed central defender was not as highly-praised as Ezataholli but was as equally impressive and important for Iran’s tight-knit backline. The Saipa FC footballer had an inherent composure and calm that was felt by all of those who were paying close attention to the games.
The strong defender was also responsible for serving as the team’s captain, signaling his ability to lead, vocalize and take charge. If he is on the right side of the development curve, Iranian fans will have to start thinking of Majid Hosseini to take-over from current and central Team Melli defender,Jalal Hosseini. Besides sharing the same last name, both take no risks, are physically prudent and play with incredible passion.
Probably the least heralded player on the team was Sadegh Moharrami, who took over for an injured Sasan Jafari against Argentina. Despite the heavily favored Argentinians expected to make quick-work of the Asian country, Sadegh Moharrami, was one of the main reasons that Iran looked the better side. The right-back was the game’s MVP for many, as he caused all kinds of trouble with his offensive positioning and runs and was able to dispose of Argentinian attacks.
Moharrami was benched in favor of Jafari, who despite putting in a solid outing, did not have the same impact that the Malavan FC right back did. Ali Doustimehr’s decision to replace Moharrami left many scratching their heads.
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