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Iran aim to leave with more than honour

While perhaps not synonymous with the World Cup it may surprise some to learn that Iran do enjoy a modest footballing pedigree.

Not only have 'Team Meli' been Asian champions three times (1968, 1972 and 1976) they are also veterans of two World Cups; making their debut back in 1978 and returning to the big stage in 1998.

Although Iran's showing in Argentina was far from glorious, as the lone standard bearer for Asian football it was not without its relative successes.

Iran may have conceded eight goals on the way to finishing bottom of their group after three games with no wins, but they did manage to score twice and could have beaten Scotland had they not gifted their European opponents on own-goal in a 1-1 draw.

However, despite the considerable achievement of reaching the 1978 World Cup, football was soon marginalised in Iran largely as a result of the social and political impact of 1979's Revolution and the war with Iraq during the 1980s.

Twenty years after their exploits in Argentina and Iran were back at on the World Cup stage, and at France '98 not only did Iran not finish bottom of their group but they won their first World Cup game in a memorable encounter against, of all people, their fierce ideological enemies the United States.

The match attracted much pre-game hype with news broadcasters billing the game as something as a potential diplomatic incident in the making. However, and to their credit, both sets of players conducted themselves impeccably before, during and after the game with flowers, shirts and embraces exchanged.

Ultimately though, while fans of both countries will remember the game for years to come, in the context of the tournament Iran's 2-1 victory was largely inconsequential as both sides failed to reach the knockout stage.

Qualification for Germany has served to temper the heartbreak of Iran's play-off defeat to Ireland and the disappointment of failing to reach the 2002 finals in Japan/ South Korea: When Iran secured their place in the 2006 draw with a 1-0 win over Bahrain hundreds of thousands of fans flooded the streets of Tehran amid scenes of celebrations featuring the obligatory firecrackers and national flag-waving.

Qualification had gotten off to an inauspicious start with a 1-0 defeat at home to Jordan but Iran's Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic managed to restore confidence in his side and after a strong showing in the 2004 Asian Cup Iran never looked back going on to beat Jordan 2-0 in the return fixture.

Iran, having been drawn into a group featuring Angola, Mexico and Portugal, face a difficult challenge if they are to better their performance at France '98.

A dream showing in Germany would see Iran securing a win and two draws and sneaking into the knockout phase, but a more realistic aim would be to win against Angola and not get humiliated by either Portugal or Mexico.

That is not to belittle the quality of the Iranian side who do boast a number of technically proficient players with experience of playing in some of Europe's top leagues.

Particularly worthy of note are the 2004 AFC player of the year and Bayern Munich forward Ali Karimi and two other Bundesliga players; Hanover striker Vahid Hashemian and Kaiserslautern midfielder Ferydoon Zandi. And it would be churlish not to mention veteran striker Ali Daei, Iran's most capped player and all-time leading scorer.

Nevertheless competing against sides of the quality of Mexico and Portugal represents a significant challenge for Team Meli and their main objective must be to leave Germany with their honour intact.

BRANKO IVANKOVIC

The man credited with guiding Iran to Germany is Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic.

The 52-year-old began his coaching career in 1991 with the first of several jobs in Croatian club football. Ivankovic cut his teeth with a four-year spell in charge of NK Varteks then moved to NK Segesta in 1995 where he stayed for just one season before being lured to NK Rijeka, whom he coached for two years.

Thanks to his achievements in the domestic game Ivankovic was appointed as assistant coach of the Croatian national team alongside team boss Miroslav Blazevic; it was a partnership which would garner significant success at the 1998 World Cup finals in France where the Croats surprised many by finishing third.

After France '98 Ivankovic, who boasts a PhD in physical education, spent the 1999/2000 season in Germany in charge of Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96. However it wasn't long before he was again on the move, with Iran his final destination.

Ivnakovic briefly returned to the Croatian national team as assistant to Mirko Jozi? during the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, before teaming-up once again with former colleague and compatriot Blazevic, who was in charge of the Iranian national team as they too strove to reach the Japan/ South Korea World Cup.

Unfortunately for Team Melli the Blazevic-Ivankovic double act was unable to recreate the success they had enjoyed at France '98. When Iran failed to reach the 2002 tournament after play-off defeat to Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland, Blazevic stepped down.

The Iranian Football Federation felt the natural choice to succeed Blazevic was his assistant, a man who had impressed the authorities with his general approach to the team.

That decision has been validated thanks to a sustained period of success, which has included first place at the 2002 Asian Games, victory in the 2004 edition of the biannual West Asian Football Federation championship, third place in the 2004 Asian Cup, and of course, qualification for the World Cup.

Although Ivankovic has impressed many with his results, the introduction of young players and the fostering a strong team spirit, he has not been without his critics in the Iranian media; though pedantic arguments against his choice of tactics and formations have been drowned out by his successes, no more so than reaching Germany. It is expected that Ivankovic will leave his post after the World Cup to pursue a position in club football, most likely in Europe.

ALI KARIMI

If Iran are to have any success at the World Cup they will need their star player, Ali Karimi, to show his undoubted quality on the biggest stage of them all.

Karimi is an attacking midfielder blessed with considerable technical skill and the ability to turn games with his dribbling skills and incisive runs.

Known by Team Melli fans, somewhat hyperbolically, as 'The Wizard of Tehran' and 'The Persian Maradona', Karimi is an attacking midfielder blessed with considerable technical skill and the ability to turn games with his dribbling skills and incisive runs.

He began his career with little-known Iranian second division club Fath, where, according to legend, training was conducted on the street with a plastic ball. In 1998 Karimi joined Perepolis with whom he won the Iranian league and cup double in 1999 and league championship again in 2000.

Karimi was soon attracting the covetous attentions of some leading European clubs, including Atletico Madrid and Perugia, but when the time came for a move a 22-year-old Karmini preferred to stay closer to home and opted for relocation to the United Arab Emirates where he joined Al Ahli of Dubai.

He made an immediate impact in the UAE earning a nomination as the league's best player and helping the club lift their first trophy during the 2001/02 season.

On the international stage Karimi made his debut in the friendly win over Kuwait in 1998 and went on to help Iran win the 1998 Asian Games, notably scoring in the final. Other international highlights include finishing as joint top-scorer in the 2004 Asian Cup - a feat that helped him earn the Asian Football Confederation's player of the year accolade in 2004.

Now 27 years old Karimi plays his club football in Germany with Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, whom he joined after his contract ran out at Al Ahli.

No stranger to World Cup disappointment after missing out on the 2002 tournament after defeat in the play-offs, Karimi feared he would be once again denied the opportunity of playing in the World Cup, this time through injury.

Worries that the midfielder had broken his ankle in March during Bayern's 2-1 win over Hamburg were allayed when an x-ray revealed only ligament damage.

Two months of convalescence and successful rehabilitation work followed and thankfully, for Iranian hopes, Karimi is now posed to show his particular brand of high-speed, trick-filled ball skills in Germany.