Carlos Queiroz opens up on Iran, World Cup qualifiers and Branko Ivankovic
Iran have been the top-ranked Asian nation, according to FIFA, for four years. They were unbeaten in 2016 and sit on top of Group A in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, well-placed to secure back-to-back finals places for the first time.
But coach Carlos Queiroz has just resigned and the situation surrounding the national team is febrile. Not for the first time, in either case. This is different, however, insists the coach who took the job in 2011.
The former Real Madrid and Portugal boss accuses the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) of failing to implement a preparation program for World Cup qualification that was agreed upon in 2016. His resignation letter, submitted on Saturday, was rejected by the federation on Monday.
IFF president Mehdi Taj said that Queiroz will continue to work as coach. "I talked with Queiroz and I have to insist that the national team is our priority," he said. "In order to support the squad; their commitment to Queiroz has caused our disagreement with his resignation. We are in a crucial time and have to do our best to reach the World Cup."
For Queiroz, though, that is irrelevant. "That does not answer the key issues," he told ESPN FC. "The question is not about the resignation, I don't want to discuss that anymore. The promises have been blown up, it is all delay and postponements and 'next time,' but in football, there is no next time. The game is tomorrow."
According to Queiroz, after Iran had progressed past the second round of qualification for Russia 2018, he was asked last June to submit a preparation plan for the 10 games in the final stage. One was rejected as unworkable, but what he calls "Plan B" was approved by the federation, coaches, players and clubs.
However, cracks have emerged in the alliance, with the main problem being Queiroz's deteriorating relationship with Branko Ivankovic. The Croatian led Iran to the 2006 World Cup, and is now in charge of the country's biggest club, Persepolis. He has voiced his concerns about losing his players to national team training camps.
The latest exchange came with the national team in the United Arab Emirates during the first week of January.
"We are going to prepare our team in the midseason but Queiroz has invited our key players to the training camp while Persepolis should prepare for the AFC Champions League," said a furious Ivankovic to local media. "If we cannot qualify for the next stage, Queiroz will be responsible for that."
Though seven Persepolis players did return to their club, Queiroz rejects Ivankovic's accusation out of hand.
"He says it will be my fault. The Champions League starts on Feb. 23," Queiroz said. "Many countries that have a winter break have training camps for local-based players. It is about trying to help them."
A report last week suggested that Ivankovic, who was previously linked with a return in 2010 and again last year, would be a leading candidate to take over as coach. The Croatian has not denied his interest in a second stint in charge and Queiroz says the whole situation is detrimentally affecting the national team.
"Coincidentally or not, this is a man who was promised the job after I resigned before," Queiroz said. "He is jealous and frustrated and he has insulted me. He can't use the national team as an excuse for his own mistakes. Why is he making these issues? He should have more respect.
"I went to the president of the federation and he said that he did not have the authority to implement the program that had been approved," Queiroz continued. "If the federation is not strong enough to defend its own national team, that's it. What am I doing here?"
Queiroz insists he has no idea of what happens next. On the field, Iran take on Qatar and China in March in the next games of qualification. Given their performances so far, which include a 1-0 win in Tehran against rivals South Korea in October, it would be a surprise if "Team Melli" do not make it to Russia, though the 63-year-old insists that there is still much work to be done.
"This is all about World Cup qualification. It is not easy," Queiroz continued. "Everyone should know that the Iranian national team have faced huge difficulties due to sanctions. It is important to remind people that it is hard to arrange friendly games. We don't have the money to play good teams or hold good camps. We don't need each other to be opponents,we have enough of those outside."
Queiroz's trump card is the fact that he has delivered before. He may continue to clash with IFF officials but the fans don't care; he is Iran's most successful coach of all-time.
Not only is he close to taking Iran to a second successive World Cup but, once there -- depending on the draw -- Iran could offer Asia's best chance of a place in the knockout stage. This is a younger team than that which almost gave Argentina a shock in Brazil but has more talent and international experience.
"We have made real progress. We have 11 players in Europe now, which has never happened before," Queiroz said. "We have been the No. 1 team in Asia for four years. This does not mean we are always the best, but it is still a hard thing to do. We have good young players and top of our group. What more do they expect?"
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.