32 Teams in 32 Days: Iran
The following statistic tells you all you need to know: Only eight goals were scored by Iran in the eight games of the final round of qualification (four of which came in one match against Lebanon), but manager Carlos Queiroz's side still finished with a goal difference of plus-6.
It will come as no surprise to fans familiar with Queiroz that Iran's focus at the World Cup in Brazil will be on being hard to beat. Iran are well-organised, defend in numbers and look to hit the opposition on the counterattack using the pace of Reza Ghoochannejhad to get the goals. This worked against AFC opponents, but the challenge is to take that to the world level, as preparations since qualification have not been smooth.
Iran's perceived weakness could turn out to be their strength. The other teams in Group F will see Team Melli as a relatively easy opponent and an absolutely necessary three points. Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Nigeria will also likely be more aggressive in the search for goals, which should provide space for speedy and skillful attackers. These plans will play into the hands of a wily coach who has more international experience than most.
Iran have participated in three previous World Cups, (1978, 1998, 2006) and have never reached the knockout stage. The previous three appearances have yielded just one victory -- against the United States in 1998.
How they reached Brazil
Qualification was no place for the faint-hearted and was something of a roller coaster for fans -- Queiroz called it "a journey through hell." The first group stage was navigated fairly easily, but the final round was tense until the final second of the last match. Iran's first loss against Lebanon had Queiroz on the back foot. A subsequent home loss against Uzbekistan had Iran out of the automatic spots with three games remaining, and scoring just two goals in the first five matches summed up the issue.
Then, it all went right. In came goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi, who didn't pick the ball out of the net once in the final three matches. In the first of those games, Ghoochannejhad scored the lone goal to give Iran a 1-0 victory against Qatar. Iran then avenged their previous loss to Lebanon with a 4-0 decision before a dramatic 1-0 win against South Korea (thanks to another Ghoochannejhad goal) sealed their trip to Brazil.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
Iran's opening game against Nigeria is crucial, while beating Messi & Co. in the second match would obviously be a huge deal in terms of excitement at home and coverage worldwide. But, in purely practical terms, it is all about Bosnia-Herzegovina, a match that is seen as a must-win by all. Without three points in that game, dreams of the second round are likely to remain just that.
In the Tehran media, articles on how to stop Edin Dzeko are just as common as the breathless reports of his goal-scoring exploits for Manchester City in the Premier League.
The fact that Bosnia are the opposition in the final group game is probably a plus -- just a point from the opening two matches will likely give Iran a chance. There is always the possibility that Bosnia will have nothing to play for if they lose their first two games.
Most important player
Many hopes rest of the shoulders of Ghoochannejhad. The attacker, who moved with his family from Iran to the Netherlands when he was a boy, left Belgium's Standard Liege in January for Charlton Athletic just to get some game time. The experience will have done him good, as well as increase his match sharpness. Visa issues delayed his international debut, but he was worth the wait, finding the net nine times in his first 11 games (including those two goals that clinched World Cup qualification). His stats are even more impressive considering that Iran are not the most attacking team in the world.
Fulham's Ashkan Dejagah contributes guile from the right side after being one of the better players for the London team in a relegation season and brings a lot of European experience. In the middle, Javad Nekounam is not quite the all-action, fearsome warrior of old, but the 33 year-old is a settling presence in midfield.
Definition of success
Obviously, Iran want to avoid losing all three group games, but true success comes only with a place in the Round of 16. If they do that, nothing else matters; the celebrations in Tehran will be intense, and there will be a place in the history books for Queiroz and his players.
Failing progression, a good result against Argentina would be a considerable consolation. Iran have faced some big teams at the World Cup -- Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Germany, Mexico and Portugal -- and have lost to all of them. Collecting a giant victory would go over very well.
How far will Iran go?
Better than many think, but just falling short of the second round.
ESPN FC Analysts' take: Shaka Hislop
The team's entire outlook changed during qualifying. They started poorly but turned things around by sharpening the defence, winning 1-0 games and, really, becoming quite boring. But, in the end, they topped the group.
We can expect to see a similar look in June: They'll try to be solid in back and hope to get a goal or two. Captain/midfielder Javad Nekounam has been with the team forever (135 caps); he's good from set pieces, reads the game well and is a real inspiration in the dressing room.