Asian Cup – Iran v Bahrain: One of the Cup favourites satisfies its legion of fans.


Roy Hay

The last time the national team of Iran was in Melbourne was in a World Cup qualifier in 1997. Then in front of a full house at the MCG Iran pulled off a come from behind 2–2 draw with the Socceroos which was enough to ensure that the visitors and not the hosts would play in France the following year. It devastated a generation of Australian players, their coach Terry Venables, soccer icon Johnny Warren and the overwhelming majority of those who were there to see the game. Yet among that crowd I remember many people who supported Iran that day or had an each way bet by wearing the colours of both teams. Nevertheless the team from Iran were the bad guys in the eyes of the locals on that occasion.

So how would a modern Australian crowd react when Iran took on Bahrain in Group C of the Asian Cup last night? Perhaps the answer is that they stayed away for among the 17,712 who filled the rectangular stadium with their vociferous support it seemed that the overwhelming majority were Iranian supporters. Now given that the 2011 census recorded 7,446 Victorians who were born in Iran and that number has increased since then, it still leaves a puzzle as to whether the rest of the support came from other parts of Australia or from overseas. I’m raising these questions because I really want to find out whether many Victorians have embraced Iran as their second team, as the Local Organising Committee for the Asian Cup, has bid us do. I also want to know whether there is a shift in the domestic perceptions of Asia associated with this tournament. It is one of the underlying aims of those involved with the Asian Cup to help break down the residual suspicions and fears that many Australians appear to have about Asia and its many varied peoples.

I was back in the press box for the game, or the ‘media tribune’ as the self aggrandizing promoters in FIFA and the AFC refer to the area from which the journos watch the game. Alongside me, Ali from Iran (he did not give me any other names) marked my card about the players to watch, including Javad Nekonam, the deep-lying midfielder who orchestrated much of Iran’s creative play. Morteza Pouraliganji and Vorya Ghafouri were getting their first starts in the national team. Ali has a wicked sense of humour. When Ashkan Dejagah missed an opening in the 20th minute when he had only the Bahrain keeper to beat, Ali said, ‘He is worst player in the team’. ‘He is half Iranian and half German and it is the German half that is bad’.

Former Manchester United assistant coach and Real Madrid coach, Carlos Queiroz, who is in charge of Iran said before the match. ‘We’re going to play this game as if it is the Asian Cup final, and for the moment, our full concentration is for the team we play—[Bahrain].’  Iran has won the tournament three times but not since 1976, but it is coming off a relatively good showing at the World Cup last year when it drew with Nigeria and lost narrowly to Argentina and Bosnia Hercegovina.

Bahrain are regarded as one of the outsiders, so getting a favourite first up may be either the chance of an upset or a mountain to climb. As it turned out they tried to play an open game, not just ‘parking the bus’ in deep defence. In John Okwunwanne they had a big Nigerian-born central striker and he came close to opening the scoring for Bahrain in the 9th minute taking advantage of an inadvertant flick-on by Masoud Shojaei of Iran but shooting just over the bar. For too long however the big man was left on his own up front when he desperately needed close support to unhinge the Iran defence.

It seemed certain that Bahrain would go to the break on level terms but in injury time in the first half, Iran got a corner and the Bahrain keeper Sayed Abbas came off his line to punch the ball clear. But he only directed it straight to Ehsan Haji Safi who cleverly lobbed the ball over the back-pedaling keeper and just under the bar. So the crowd erupted and it appeared that all Bahrain’s work had been in vain.

It took Iran till the 71st minute to turn its superiority into another goal, when Masoud Shojaei had a simple tap in at the far post after a good lead up play. After the game Carlos Queiroz pointed out that Bahrain played positively throughout even when they were two-nil down and indeed the men in red might have scored on a couple of occasions in the last few minutes of the game.



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