Iran came within inches of winning the Group B of the 2018 World Cup and a historic knockout place but striker Mehdi Taremi missed a last-gasp chance to put Iran in front as a 1-1 draw saw Portugal finish second in the group with Spain topping the table after a 2-2 draw against Morocco.
Iran’s Karim Ansarifard scored a late penalty to cancel out Ricardo Quaresma’s first half goal.
Quaresma gave the European champion the lead on the stroke of halftime after his stunning curled shot with the outside of his right foot found the back of Iran’s net.
Cristiano Ronaldo could have doubled his team’s lead in the 53rd minute when the Paraguayan referee Enrique Caceres – after a VAR review – gave a penalty for Saied Ezzatollahi’s challenge on Portugal’s captain.
Iran’s goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand had to pull off a heroic save to deny Ronaldo his fifth goal of the tournament.
The Real Madrid star was involved in another controversy when he elbowed the Iranian defender Morteza Pouraliganji, receiving a yellow card after the ref watched the replay.
With time running out and Iranians making their last-ditch efforts to get back in the game, the VAR again proved decisive in the stoppage time as Caceres decided that Portugal’s Cedric Soares had handled the ball in the box.
Ansarifard converted from the spot to make it a nervy ending for the Portuguese and a minute later Taremi could have made them rue the missed penalty but only hit the side-netting from close range.
Portugal will face Group A topper Uruguay in Sochi on Saturday and Spain will next meet host Russia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium a day later.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz reacted angrily after the game, saying they had deserved to win.
"Only one winner could come out in this game and it should have been Iran," Queiroz told reporters, ESPN FC reported.
"We deserved to win. I am a bad loser, I am proud but frustrated."
Queiroz also implicitly criticized the refereeing and renewed his attacks on the VAR system.
"An elbow is a red card. The rules do not say what if it is Ronaldo or Messi. It is a red card. The decisions must be clear," Queiroz said.
Pressed on whether he thought referees treated stars such as Ronaldo leniently, he said, "You need to ask them.
"I am not in a good mood, as you can see. There could have been at least one more penalty against Portugal, at least one.
"Five guys sitting upstairs and they don't see an elbow. Give me a break."
Asked what he thought of the refereeing, Queiroz said: "I have a clear opinion but I need to measure my words. I have to be careful."
Queiroz also paid fulsome tribute to his players, staff and to the Iranian fans who have turned up in Russia in huge numbers.
"We have learnt a lot here, we have gained respect from people," he said.
"The Iranian players are very courageous. I try to get the spirit of Portuguese bullfighters from them. How they go into the ring and dominate the animal with courage."
Heartbroken but proud
One of the stingiest teams at Russia, Iran’s departure from the World Cup will be a relief to teams that might have faced them in the knockout rounds.
Once the dust clears, Queiroz and Iran should feel hugely proud of their achievements, which included a first World Cup win in 20 years and all but grinding through one of the tournament’s toughest groups, Reuters reported.
Few gave them much chance of reaching the Round of 16 in a pool also featuring Spain and Morocco, and its preparations were disrupted by political problems, with Nike declining to supply boots over concerns it would breach US sanctions.
Iran’s ability to nullify the attacking threat of the Iberian powers may be closely examined by the teams that remain in the tournament.
Morocco could find no way through the Persian stonewall in a 1-0 loss and neither could Spain until the Iranians conceded a fortuitous Diego Costa goal, the result of a deflection pinging off his knee from an attempted clearance.
It took a wonder goal by Quaresma to put Portugal on the scoresheet.
Iran’s goalkeeper Beiranvand, who slept rough on the streets of Tehran as a junior while pursuing his football dream, could do nothing to stop either of the goals.
But he departs with reputation enhanced, his brilliant save on Ronaldo’s spot-kick a crowning moment in a fine tournament.
Iran’s problems were down the other end, though, where team spirit and dogged application will only get you so far.
Far from playing a negative game, Iranians created enough chances to score a hatful of goals but were let down repeatedly by a mix of bad luck and poor finishing.
It took an own goal from Morocco to secure victory in their opener and a penalty to grab the equalizer against Portugal.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh’s dominant form in the Dutch top flight was nowhere to be seen, and talented young striker Sardar Azmoun was also ineffective.
Iran leaves Russia with acclaim but also uncertainty over its future as Queiroz said before the tournament that he will depart after seven years in charge.
A master tactician, one of his greatest coups was to forge a unity of purpose among players from diverse backgrounds and build a team strong enough to withstand the political and economic challenges of playing football in Iran.