With the end of 2021 right around the corner, Iran national football team will look back on the year as one of immense progress, and full of joy and most notably relief.
The Asian powerhouse – alongside Argentina and Algeria – was part of the trio that went a whole calendar year unbeaten.
The year started with a 3-0 victory over Syria in a friendly on home soil in March and the same scoreline in the corresponding fixture – this time in the World Cup qualifiers – in November rounded off a perfect campaign for Iran, which won 8-in-9 between the two games.
When the year began, the prospect of an early exit of the 2022 World Cup Asian qualifiers was looming large for the Iranians, but twenty months forward, Dragan Skocic’s men are on the verge of securing a place in next year’s showdown in Qatar.
Before international football was hit by the coronavirus pandemic, back-to-back defeats against Bahrain (1-0) and Iraq (2-1) in 2019 – under former manager Marc Wilmots – had left Iran third in Group C of the previous round of the qualifiers, meaning nothing short of a clean sweep of victories in the remainder of the fixtures, was enough to seal a spot in the final group phase for one of the dominant forces of the Asian football.
The circumstances got even more complicated for the new Croatian head coach when the Asian football’s governing body, the AFC, decided to move all remaining fixtures of the group to Bahrain, citing the coronavirus restrictions, as Iran – host of the three games according to the initial schedule – now had to deal with the muggy weather of the Persian Gulf country in June.
However, Skocic, who had been subjected to some scrutiny by the Iranian pundits upon his appointment to the job, capitalized on the formidable striking partnership of Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi – as well as some brilliant performances by the likes of Shoja Khalilzadeh, Hossein Kan’anizadegan, and Ahmad Nourollahi – to lead his team to four successive wins against Hong Kong (3-1), Bahrain (3-0), Cambodia (10-0), and Iraq (1-0) and a top-spot finish in the group.
Iran – pitted against South Korea, the UAE, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the final group phase – picked up in Group A where it had left off, beating Syria 1-0 at home and then Iraq by three goals in September.
Away victories over the UAE (1-0) and Lebanon (2-1), either side of a 1-1 home draw against South Korea, were followed by the latest triumph over Syria, as Iran has inflicted its dominance over the group, sitting atop the table with 16 points – 10 points clear of the third-placed UAE.
With the top-two of each group heading to the finals, a victory over Iraq at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on January 27 will see Skocic’s team progress with three games to spare – probably the easiest qualification campaign ever for Iran.
Memorable for Messi
The year will also be one to remember for Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.
His shocking departure from Barcelona in August – after 17 years in the Catalan club’s first team – was followed by a slow start to life in French giant Paris St.-Germain – at least by his own standards – but on international level, it was surely an impressive 12-month period, which eventually convinced France Football to honor Messi with a record-extending seventh Ballon d'Or.
Messi, 34, celebrated a first-ever silverware with Argentina, steering the Albiceleste to the Copa America title in July, which came at the expense of a 1-0 win against their old foe Brazil on its own turf of Maracana.
An unbeaten run of 16 games – including 11 victories – also saw Messi and co. seal a berth in next year’s World Cup, where Messi will probably have his last shot at lifting the trophy.
Algeria, meanwhile, played 17 matches over the past 12 months and walked away with 13 victories. The peak of the campaign for Madjid Bougherra’s men came just over a week ago, when extra-time goals by Amir Sayoud and Yacine Brahimi clinched a 2-0 victory over Tunisia in the FIFA Arab Cup final in Qatar.