Iran defeat sends Cho back to the drawing board
"The Koreans also need to be slapped," Iranian vice president Mohammad Reza Rahimi allegedly told state media in August following Seoul's decision to join the United States in imposing sanctions on the West Asian country. The Iran national team did the job for him on Tuesday evening in Seoul as Masoud Shojaei administered the punishment in a 1-0 friendly win, helped by a Korean defence that offered a collective cheek for bashing.
Despite such remarks, the football rivalry between Iran and Korea is just that - football. There is little of the regional or historical baggage that is often found elsewhere on the continent. These are two nations that have respect for each other - one of Seoul's main thoroughfares is called 'Tehran Street' - and have enjoyed a number of titanic battles on the pitch over the years. So much so that one almost wonders why they bother arranging friendlies, so often do they meet on the competitive stage.
Apart from two World Cup 2010 qualifiers, these giants of East and West Asia have met at the quarter-final stage of the Asian Cup on the last four occasions - though neither team went on to win the competition and neither has done so since 1976 - as well as qualification for the 2007 edition.
Iran loom large in the early days of Korean coaching tenures. On Tuesday, a rare night for football action in East Asia, they provided the second opposition for new man Cho Kwang-Rae. Team Melli also provided the second opposition for Pim Verbeek in 2007, the first for Dick Advocaat in 2005, the sixth for Jo Bonfrere in 2004 and the sixth for Guus Hiddink back in 2001.
But Korea loom even larger for Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi. The 46 year-old Iranian-American, a controversial choice in the conservative world of Iranian football politics (and there are more politics in Iranian football than almost anywhere else) due to his background, had three stints with the coaching staff of South Korea and was assistant coach at the 2006 World Cup and the 2007 Asian Cup.
Even without such history, there was reason for his delight on Tuesday as his last visit to Seoul wasn't a happy one. The former Persepolis boss took possession of the national team hot seat in Tehran in April 2009 with just three games of qualification for the 2010 World Cup to go. The last match came in Seoul when Park Ji-Sung, just as he did in Tehran a few months earlier, scored after 81 minutes to ensure that the game ended 1-1. It was a goal that ended Iranian dreams of a South African summer.
With nine minutes remaining in the match on Tuesday, Ghotbi and the few dozen visiting fans waving the red, green and white flag were holding their breath but this time the Manchester United man had no such impact. Instead, the Taeguk Warriors slumped to a 1-0 defeat, their first at home since January 2008.
It was a win celebrated fervently by the visitors and, coming after recent victories in Armenia and China, Team Melli look to be coming to the boil at the right time. Iran have been preparing for the Asian Cup for the best part of the year while Korea have, until recently, had other things on their mind. Watching the Koreans and Japanese reach the second round at the World Cup was not a pain-free experience for Iran's passionate fans or the massive and influential sports media. Passionate captain Javad Nekounam felt the same, so much so he couldn't watch any Asian team in action in South Africa.
The Osasuna midfielder was also speaking no evil, playing down talk of revenge before the match. This however, was a team that came to Seoul determined. Iran may have warmed up wearing pink training tops but their performance was powerful rather than pretty. At times, especially in the latter stages of the game, the defending became increasingly desperate but the white wall held firm in the face of sustained pressure. Korea's front three of Park Ji-Sung, Lee Chung-Yong and Park Chu-Young has the sort of pace, movement and skill that most Asian teams - and quite a few elsewhere - would kill for, but they all lacked a killer instinct on Tuesday. Width was rarely used and rare too was the sight of the Korean attack penetrating the Iranian defence. Even when it did, one of Asia's best goalkeepers, Mahdi Rahmati, was on hand to get his hands to goalbound shots.
Lee Young-Pyo's hands were on his head before moving down to rest on his hips ten minutes before the break. The one-time Spurs man decided to poke the ball back in the centre circle only to find Pejman Nouri. The Malavan midfielder, impressive along with Andranik Teymourian in the middle, found Shojaei on the edge of the area and the Osasuna star, usually frustratingly inconsistent for his country, made no mistake.
Korea's players made a few and, most noticeably in defence, they seemed to find the 3-4-1-2 formation awkward; with Iran often finding large gaps to exploit. Further forward, the team's wealth of possession but lack of accurate passing will be a source of concern for coach Cho in the time leading up to next month's game against Japan. Another defeat would really start to make fans and media nervous. It remains to be seen if the new man sticks with the new system. He can be forgiven for experimenting in only his second game in charge but with the Asian Cup just four months away, time for tests is short.
For Iran, coming after an impressive 2-0 win in China and a dogged 3-1 win victory in Armenia, they can look forward to the Asian Cup with renewed optimism. Few teams come to Seoul and win. It may not have made up for missing out on the World Cup but for Iran, slapping South Korea in their own backyard sure felt good.