By Syed Zafar Mehdi
The countdown is over. Battle lines are drawn. The biggest and grandest soccer extravaganza is underway in Qatar with 32 nations from Africa to Asia to Europe competing for glory and redemption.
One of them is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is making its sixth grand appearance at the FIFA World Cup, the marquee event that takes place every four years.
Team Melli will kick off its campaign against the formidable England on Monday at Doha's iconic Khalifa International Stadium, which has previously hosted the Asian Games and AFC Asia Cup.
Carlos Queiroz's boys will take to the field with a long-cherished goal -- to qualify for the knockout stage, and possibly further, a feat the team has never been able to achieve since its maiden World Cup appearance in 1978.
England, on the other hand, start as favorites, having clinched the FIFA World Cup trophy in 1966, the first and only time, under the legendary Alf Ramsey. They would be raring to go and end their 56-year-long drought.
To achieve the ultimate glory, the teams need to navigate three group-stage games followed by three knockout matches before the high-voltage and high-adrenaline summit clash at Lusail Stadium, Doha, on December 18.
Iran has been clubbed in Group B with England, US and Wales. After facing England on Monday, Team Melli will take on Wales on Nov. 25, followed by the US on Nov. 29. All three games promise high-octane action, but the game between Iran and England, in particular, will be exciting.
Gareth Southgate's side, ranked fifth in the world, was recently relegated from the Nations League, and is evidently low on morale. Wales, although a star-studded team, faced the same fate. The US was handed a crushing defeat by Japan followed by a goalless draw against Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the Qatar World Cup.
On the contrary, Iran defeated Uruguay 1-0 and drew with African giants Senegal. The top Asian football side's World Cup qualification this time was surprisingly quick and effortlessly easy, topping their group with 25 points and a goal difference of +11.
Looking back, Team Melli's World Cup record has been a mixed bag of ecstasy and heartbreak over the years. For instance, in 2014, the team finished at the bottom of their group, behind Argentina, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 2018, it surprised all and sundry by finishing third, just one point behind heavyweights, Portugal and Spain.
The World Cup goals to remember include Ansarifard's penalty kick against Portugal in 2018, Ghoochannejhad's strike against Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014, Bakhtiarizadeh's header against Angola in 2006, Golmohammadi's goal from a corner kick against Mexico in 2006 World Cup, and goals by Mahdivikia and Estilia against the US in 1998.
Having said that, Team Melli is the cricket equivalent of Pakistan and West Indies, the two unpredictable, mercurial teams who can beat the most formidable sides on their day. It just boils down to holding the nerve and absorbing the pressure, on and off the field.
The team boasts of high-quality strikers such as Mehdi Taremi, the star player for Portuguese club Porto, and Sardar Azemoun, who plays for German club Bayer Leverkusen. Both of them are ably assisted by seasoned campaigners Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Karim Ansarifard, and Saman Ghaddous, among others.
And, of course, Alireza Beiranvand, who became an overnight hero after blocking a penalty kick by Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo in the 2018 World Cup, one of the toughest tasks in world football.
Queiroz, who recently took over from Croatian Dragon Skocic, has had a long and fruitful association with this team, having mentored many star players, including Taremi and Azemoun. His out-of-the-blue return and Skocic's unceremonious exit were briefly surrounded by controversy but the team seems to have regrouped well under the new coach and support staff.
The bigger challenge for Queiroz and his boys in Qatar would be to focus on on-field activities, away from the maddening din off the field. The volatile situation back home, triggered by deadly foreign-backed riots, is definitely going to play on their minds, especially with hostile Western media hell-bent on intertwining sports with politics.
Last week, when Queiroz was interrogated by English reporters at a press conference in Doha and asked to comment on riots in Iran, he quite rightly reminded them of the immigration crisis in the United Kingdom. The only difference is, British problems are of their own making, while Iran's problems have been manufactured in the West.
Skipper Jahanbakhsh too slammed the British media for "destabilizing" the team and playing "mental games" by tossing political questions at players ahead of the all-important game on Monday. What's clear is that the British and US media are going to make it hard for Team Melli off the field.
Iranian players have been under tremendous psychological pressure the past few weeks amid a relentless campaign by hostile forces in the West to de-legitimize them and affect their morale ahead of the World Cup. They have been viciously trolled and abused online under a deep-rooted conspiracy.
But, what matters to them at the moment is to bring laurels to the country and cheer millions of fans back home.
"For us, qualifying (for the knockout phase) would be huge. We will give everything we have to achieve," Taremi, one of Team Melli's all-time leading scorers told the FIFA website recently, calling it the "greatest honor" to represent the country.
Iran's performance in Qatar will be a fitting answer to those who have sought to play the spoilsport. It will also bring much-needed cheer to people in the country.
Syed Zafar Mehdi is a Tehran-based journalist, political commentator and author. He has reported for over 12 years from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kashmir and Middle East for leading publications worldwide.
(The views expressed in this article are author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Press TV.)