Team Melli looked excellent in defeat
Before the start of this World Cup not many Iran fans imagined that going into the third and final round of the group stage Iran would still have chance to fight for a spot in the Round of 16.
Yet, despite Saturday's heartbreaking 1-0 defeat against Argentina, Team Melli still has a fair chance to go beyond the group stage in a World Cup tournament that has turned out to be anything but predictable.
Team Melli put up a valiant fight against a star studded Argentina in Belo Horizonte; however, a magical extra-time moment from the world's best player rubbed them off what would have been the best result in the country's footballing history.
Once the initial disappointment of this difficult defeat has passed, most Team Melli fans will come to recognize and appreciate their team's inspired performance for what it was.
To put it in perspective consider these facts: the Argentina team that took the field against Team Melli included four of the best attacking players in the game today.
Of the four, Lionel Messi has the top total annual earnings of 64.7 million dollars, plus Sergio Aguero with 23.3 million dollars are respectively the second and fifth top earners in this World Cup according to Forbes magazine. That is more than triple the total annual budget of Iranian football federation.
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Furthermore, Argentina's squad included seven or more players who have won major trophies with top European clubs.
And finally, Iran came to this World Cup as one of the lowest ranked teams in the tournament while Argentina are one of the early favorites to go all the way.
Many football purists criticised coach Carlos Queiroz's defensive approach against African champions Nigeria in the first match of Group F. However, today we saw a different side to his team. They did put numbers behind the ball for most of the first half, but in the second half they took advantage of a frustrated Argentina and created a few dangerous opportunities of their own.
Sergio Romero, the Argentina goalkeeper, was forced to make four saves during the match (as compared to eight by his Iranian counterpart), and one of them had to be a top class acrobatic fingertip save. Queiroz may not have the luxury of many big names on his roster, but he has somehow managed to drill a ton of self-belief in his players and extract every ounce of performance he possibly can out of them.
The boys, for their part, have played their hearts out in more than 180 minutes of football at the highest stage. Against Argentina every single Team Melli starter, including the three who were substituted out late in the game, ran over 9 kilometers. Lone striker Reza Ghoochannejhad ran over 11 kilometers as did 33 year old midfielder and captain Javad Nekounam. Midfielder Andranik Teymourian who ran over 10 km had a match high 48 sprints followed by Ghoochannejhad who had 44.
Unfortunately, from Team Melli's perspective, the Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria match ended with the worst possible result. The narrow 1-0 Nigerian victory means that Iran will not only have to win their final match against Bosnia, but also hope for a solid Argentine victory if they are to go through to the next round.
It is safe to assume that neither Argentina nor Nigeria will settle for a draw which would send both of them through at the expense of Iran, but who could blame them if they did exactly that?
It will be very interesting to see if Carlos Queiroz can manage to motivate his men for their last group match after such a deflating defeat. But regardless of what happens against Bosnia on June 25, it is a sure bet that the team will get a warm reception from the fans back home upon their return.
While the majority of Iranian football fans are purists who enjoy and appreciate free flowing and attacking football, they also recognize and value hard work and team effort even if it does not produce the beautiful football that they all love. Team Melli game to this tournament as overwhelming underdogs, but they have already outlasted two former world champions and given their fans another chance to dream of possibilities.