Queiroz carrying the hopes of a nation
Carlos Queiroz has had some big jobs all over the world but is in no doubt that no country loves football like Iran. Even after more than a year as head coach of the national team, he talks of the fans with wonder.
"I am not aware of anywhere else with the same passion," he tells ESPN. "Recently there was the Tehran Derby (between Persepolis and Esteghlal) and there were 100,000 people there. A lot went to the stadium the night before and slept there. The league and federation had to provide breakfast."
Whatever that game means to Iranians, and it means a lot, it is nothing to what the country feels for "Team Melli", the national team. Iran made the 1978, 1998 and 2006 World Cups but missed out on the 2010 tournament. Their place in South Africa was taken by North Korea, a team thrashed 7-0 in Cape Town by Queiroz's Portugal.
The fans, says the former Real Madrid head coach and Manchester United assistant, "are desperate for success and desperate to see the team play in Brazil, one of the mother countries of football". And that is why he was appointed in April 2011. "The expectations are the World Cup. That was my professional expectation too. The wishes of the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) match my own."
On Tuesday, the team can take a big step towards making sure that those goals are met. A win in Lebanon could put Iran on top of Group A with three of the eight games played in the final round of qualification. A top-two finish means a place at the 2014 World Cup.
It would make a reasonable start into a fine one. Victory in Uzbekistan in the opening match in June was a fantastic way to get the ball rolling. It was a little lucky, but nothing is sweeter than a 94th-minute winner at the home of your rivals when you have been under the cosh for much of the match. It would have been even nicer had the next game, at home to Qatar, had not ended frustratingly goalless.
"The win in Uzbekistan was crucial. I consider them a very serious rival to qualify for the World Cup. Against Qatar, we were not able to score. We dominated the game in the 90 minutes but the result was below the performance."
The results so far in the group - with South Korea making a confident start with two comfortable wins - seem to back Queiroz's assertion that Qatar, Uzbekistan and Iran are fighting for the second automatic qualification spot. And while Lebanon may not be about to finish in the top two, they can make it difficult for others, especially at home, as Queiroz will find out on Tuesday. "I believe that we have a great chance to win in Beirut. We can't underestimate Lebanon, however. I saw them play against different teams and they are not easy to play against. These are not the three points that will decide the World Cup but it is important to get the win and put ourselves in a good position to play Korea in October."
Iran and Korea know each other very well in football terms but there are significant differences between the two countries. Increasingly, Korean players are heading to the big leagues at a young age. The average Korean has considerably more international experience than his Iranian counterpart.
"Absolutely it is a problem," Queiroz says. "Iran have a good league in terms of the level of competition in Asia. The conditions and salaries are good and there are not many opportunities to go to Europe. Professional opportunities are here and nearby there is Qatar and UAE that pay well. We play the Asian Champions League as well and the military duty can make things difficult for players to leave.
"But the fact is that the local players lack international experience. We saw in the recent game with Tunisia (when Iran twice let a lead slip to draw 2-2) that international games are about 90 minutes of intensity and concentration. We need that experience. In the last few months, I have been doing scouting research and am starting to open opportunities for a couple of players to play in Europe. There are a few overseas but not many and I am trying to challenge the young players to make them understand that they need to go and play international football in order to learn. "
What Queiroz says he has learned since his unveiling in April 2011 is that the system of international football is stacked against the likes of Iran. "The World Cup rules were not made to support teams like Iran, Qatar or Nigeria. The rules are made by Germany, Argentina, England and Portugal. In those countries the clubs' preparation drives forward the performance of the national team. In developing countries, the national team should be driving forward the development of football.
"But in a developing country like Iran, if you have the players four days before the games and if you have one friendly between November and July then you can't compete against the big teams like Argentina, Brazil and Portugal. If you follow FIFA, the result will be an embarrassment. In 1998 I was in Japan working and the national team players did not play for months before the World Cup and Korea made a special plan in 2002. The clubs and federation here are committed to support more actions in order to help the national team."
That needs major input from the IFF, an organisation closely linked with the government, racked by infighting and accused by fans of incompetence. A recent election for a new president developed into a proxy battle between the country's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - a habitual meddler in the football scene - and supreme leader Ali Khamenei. It does not make for a healthy football environment and, with a ready chorus of domestic critics waiting to give their opinions as to whether the new foreign coach is a waste of money or not, it is not an easy situation to operate in.
"Things are improving because we have a good plan with programmes on and off the pitch. We are working very hard at bringing players in for special programmes for the national team and we are committed to developing off-the-pitch aspects like facilities, travelling and accommodation, and we are working hard. We are not there yet but we are making progress."
The American-led sanctions squeezing the country do not help either. The difficulty of international transfers, whether of players or money, complicates everything. And there are other problems. Arranging friendlies can be tough at home - good teams are often unwilling to travel to Tehran - and travelling abroad is a pain. "There is a situation with sanctions around the country. For example, when we play abroad, we have problems with visas and it can be sometimes difficult even to get a ticket. Last time we went overseas for a game, two players could not travel as the receptive country would not issue visas for us. When you call young players and, at the last moment, tell them that they can't travel, it is a big disappointment."
Queiroz wants to secure a permit that even Barack Obama or Mitt Romney could not deny: he wants to take his team to Brazil in 2014. "My shoulders are heavy with the hopes of 75 million Iranians. It is not an easy responsibility and every day I think about that. There is only one thing on my mind and that is to succeed."