Croatian manager Dragan Skocic says he has turned his “knowledge of the Iranian players and their mindsets” in to his advantage during a successful 21 months on the Asian powerhouse’s bench.
Skocic followed in the footsteps of his countrymen Stanko Poklepovic, Tomislav Ivic, Miroslav Blazevic, and Branko Ivankovic in taking over Iran’s job in February 2020 – replacing Belgian Marc Wilmots.
“Iranians love the Croatian football, and they love the way we work. I think the Iranians have recognized that we’re professionals, and that such a small country can create such sporting values,” Skocic said in an interview with the Croatian broadcaster HRT.
When the 53-year-old – a former manager at the Iranian top-flight league for nearly six years – was appointed to the position, back-to-back defeats against Bahrain and Iraq had seen Iran facing an early exit in the 2022 World Cup Asian qualifiers preliminary group phase.
But things have changed dramatically since Skocic’s appointment, as he could become the second Croatian – following national team coach Zlatko Dalic – to clinch a place in next year’s showdown in Qatar.
“My advantage was that I knew the team and I had a proper knowledge of the Iranian players and their mindsets. The situation was completely clear to me and that certainly made the job easier for me,” added Skocic.
A 3-0 victory over Syria on Tuesday – Iran’s 12th in 13 matches under Skocic, with the other being a 1-1 draw against South Korea – meant a win against Iraq at home on January 27 will be enough for Iran to qualify, as the first Asian team, for the World Cup – for a third successive occasion – with three match to spare in Group A of the Asian qualifiers.
An impressive campaign with Iran has seen the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) pick Skocic along with some of the biggest names in the sport as the 25-man shortlist for the Men's World Best National Coach 2021 Award.
“It’s just the result of a team work. My assistants, [Croatians] Mladen Zganjer and Marijo Tot, have certainly helped me through,” added that the Croatian, who also has former Iranian internationals Vahid Hashemian and Karim Baqeri among his staff.
Meanwhile, Skocic did not hide the fact that he has been privileged to have been working with some high-profile players, who have been playing in the European elite clubs’ competitions – the Champions League and the Europa Conference League.
“Sardar Azmoun plays for Zenit St. Petersburg and he has been among top scorers of the Russian league over the past three years. Then we have Mehdi Taremi, who is Porto’s best player, and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who is a Feyenoord player.
“I think Iran is a quite balanced and strong team and – along with Japan, Australia, and South Korea – surely deserves to represent Asia at the World Cup.”