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'We want to surprise the world'

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

While other Asian finalists click up a gear in the build-up to the biggest football show on earth, the Iranians have been buffeted by the current political situation which has led to friendlies being cancelled by the dozen, depriving the Iranian team of its fair share of warm-up matches.

www.the-afc.com writer Chetan Kulkarni talks to Iran’s Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic and finds out how Team Melli is shaping up under pressure to meet the rising expectations of the football-crazy country.

Q. Several countries have demanded that Iran be barred from playing in the 2006 World Cup due to the nuclear standoff. Has this put the players under pressure and will this affect their performance?

BI: We (the team) never discussed these demands and, anyway, FIFA has already said that politics will not be mixed with sports. We are preparing for the World Cup in Germany and are full focused and haven’t even thought about these things. The players are under pressure not because of these demands but to get into the World Cup-bound team!

Q. The Iranian media has been gunning for you and demanding a replacement. The expectations of the Iranian fans are also on the rise. Are you feeling the heat?

BI: The Iranian media always puts pressure on coaches and I am no different as this is a football-crazy country. But I don’t understand why they are trying to destroy their national team. I am in charge of the national team since the last four years and we have achieved excellent results. We only played three official games in Tehran, including our victory over Japan in the World Cup qualifier. Our FIFA ranking has also improved tremendously and during this period we finished third in the AFC Asian Cup and also qualified for the World Cup.

Q. What are your expectations from the team at the World Cup?

BI: The expectations of Iranians are very high and I want to tell them that Iran is a good team and we can beat anyone in the world. We want to surprise the world and I am sure the players will prove this during the World Cup. One should not forget the performances of Korea Republic and Japan in the last World Cup. So, anything can happen in football. Of course, Portugal and Mexico are favourites in our group to make it to the second round but our target is to qualify for the second stage.

Q. Many Iranians are playing in the Bundesliga in Germany. How will this help the team when they are playing in the World Cup in Germany?

BI: They are playing in front of capacity crowds in the Bundesliga games and are well acquainted with the atmosphere there. Ali Karimi (Bayern Munich), Mehdi Mahdavikia (Hamburg SV), Fereydoon Zandi (Kaiserslautern), Vahid Hashemian (Hannover) all play in the Bundesliga. So, practically it will be a home game for them and I am sure this will be a big help for the team.

Q. Due to the volatile political situation, Iran have so far failed to arrange friendlies against quality teams except one against Costa Rica. Will this be enough in the buildup to the World Cup?

BI: Costa Rica were in the same group as Mexico in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers and their playing styles are also similar. I am happy that we chose Costa Rica.

Q. Are you trying to arrange friendlies with other teams?

BI: Firstly, it is not easy to organise friendly games but we are negotiating with a few teams for the two remaining FIFA Match Days in May. One of these teams has qualified for the World Cup but that is all I can reveal for now.

Q. Who will be the stars for Iran in this World Cup?

BI: Karimi, Mahdavikia, Zandi, Hashemian and Rahman Rezaei (Messina, Italy) are playing well for their respective teams currently and their experience will be helpful in the World Cup.

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