The 2018 World Cup Finals will kick off in Russia on Thursday where Iran will be hoping to make its mark in the greatest showdown of international football, fancying its chances of a first-ever qualification to knockout stages.
To this end, Iran is to array against the African giant Morocco on Friday before facing two of the favorites of the tournament, Spain and Portugal in Group B.
When Iran participated in the competition for only the second time in 1998 in France after a 20-year absence on the global stage, Jalal Talebi – who had just replaced Croatian Tomislav Ivić before the tournament after a shock 7-1 defeat against Italian club AS Roma – led the side to its first, and to date, only victory in the history of the finals. Iran beat USA 2-1 in a dramatic fixture – the most politically charged game in the World Cup history which lived up to the hype and will forever live in the memory of Iranian football fans.
With the opening ceremony in Russia fast approaching, the former Taj – now Esteghlal of Tehran – and Iran’s midfielder Talebi shared his memories of the competition in France and views on his country’s team in this year’s World Cup.
IRAN DAILY: How do you make of Iran?
JALAL TALEBI: The World Cup showpiece is an occasion all teams and players find as an opportunity to put on convincing performance. Iran is also seeking to get the best results. Fortunately, it is the first time that the manager has been steering the team for seven years. This will help Iran display its real power.
We have to be plucky without having a fear of conceding a loss and regardless of qualification for the knockouts.
Given the teams in our group, some Iranians are pessimistic about the results and some are wishing for a miracle, what is your opinion?
All teams advancing the World Cup Finals – be it Iran or Morocco – do their best to get the best results. But Spain and Portugal are under great pressure as nobody expects the defending champion Spain loses to Iran or Morocco.
It would be a unique opportunity to play against some of the greatest players in the world which we might never get to experience in any event but the World Cup. So we need to make the best of it regardless of our chances to go through.
You are the only manager in the Iranian football history to have won a game in the World Cup. What that means to you?
It was not a personal achievement. It belonged to the whole team. All the political tensions and issues affecting the match made it a vital game for the players. The whole credit of that victory goes to them for their efforts in that game.
It was the toughest, most stressful and most crucial game of my career as a manager. Of course, I tried to hide those feelings in the game and play down the importance of the fixture for the players as there was already so much pressure on them. I could see how determined and united they were to win that match.
I knew some of the US players from the previous World Cup. Their ex-manager Bora Milutinović was a friend of mine. They started right on the front foot in the first 20 minutes but I was sure they would back off if we could draw first blood.
And then Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored those famous goals.
Yes. That was a really important game for all of us and the players worked their socks off on the pitch. I get deeply emotional every time I remember that match. It was a night to remember in the history of our football and I believe it represents the biggest triumph in the history of all sports in Iran. It was the most watched game after the World Cup final.
It was an extraordinary atmosphere. There were some 400 photographers covering the game. The whole world was watching it. It was a special day with every Iranian crying after the final whistle.
We lost our first game against Yugoslavia but it is fair to say that we did not deserve that defeat.
That game really boosted our spirit for the USA game. We were never the weaker side against Yugoslavia and had some clear chances to score. They scored on a free-kick by Siniša Mihajlović who was one of the best free-kick takers in the world. However, we still conceded the goal due to our own mistake in forming the defensive wall against his shot.
Their manager came to me after the game and congratulated me on our performance, saying that a draw would have been a fair result.
And the 2-0 defeat against Germany in our final game.
Well, I am not saying that we were not motivated enough by that game but it felt like as if our mission had already been accomplished.
Moreover, we had never played against a team of that caliber. Although it was a fairly average Germany side in that World Cup, it still was a powerhouse. The US team had played the Germans four times before that World Cup. This was while, our players were meeting the likes of [Lothar] Matthäus, [Jürgen] Klinsmann and [Oliver] Bierhoff in person for the first time in their lives.