0632 GMT October 05, 2022
Iran head coach Dragan Skocic said it was a “great joy” to watch nationwide celebrations after the country qualified for the 2022 World Cup – starting Nov. 21 in Qatar.
Porto striker Mehdi Taremi scored a second-half winner as Iran beat Iraq 1-0 at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on Thursday to secure a top two finish in Group A of the Asian qualifiers with three games to spare.
“It was an exceptional game of football, though the result could have been more convincing for us,” Skocic told Croatian channel HRT after leading Iran to a 13th victory in 14 outings since he was appointed to the job in February 2020.
For Skocic, the “almost perfect” qualification campaign has not been an easy task at all as back-to-back defeats against Bahrain and Iraq – under ex-Belgian manager Marc Wilmots – in the preliminary group stage had left the Asian powerhouse’s bid for a third successive qualification hanging in the balance.
“This [achievement] means a lot to the Iranians, given the way the team had started the qualifiers before I took over. So the dominant performance in the qualifiers could only make me feel happy and proud,” said the 53-year-old Croatian.
Thursday’s victory was the sixth in seven Group A matches for Skocic and his team, keeping them two points clear of South Korea on top of the group table, which also features the UAE, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
“The qualifiers have been almost perfect, but there has also been a lot of problems throughout the way. We could not afford to miss a single point in the previous round [when the qualifiers resumed in Bahrain last June], and then there have been all the tight coronavirus restrictions. I can only congratulate the players and the staff for this success,” added Skocic, who had to do without four key players – including first-choice striker Sardar Azmoun – for the Iraq encounter due to COVID-19 infections.
When asked how the scenes of Iranians’ jollification on Thursday night made him feel, Skocic said, “It was truly a great joy. I’ve received many footage of street celebrations from all over the country. Iran is a footballing nation and the game means a lot to the people here.”
Next for Iran is a dead rubber against the UAE on Tuesday and then a double header against South Korea and Lebanon in late March.
Skocic, whose appointment was first met with underestimation and scrutiny among some fans and pundits in the country, is already planning for the main event in Qatar.
“I’ve matured as a coach and I’ve worked so much on myself. I also knew the national team and the mentality of the players, which was a great help when I took charge of the team,” said Skocic, who had spent eight years as a manager in the Iranian club football.
“We’ll have to prepare well [for the final showdown]. We lack quality in certain positions, but we have a strong squad in other areas of the pitch – even on a global scale. We have world-class strikers in the team and I’m confident this group of players can succeed in Qatar,” added Skocic.
Asked about the prospect of an encounter with his home country when the finals draw takes place on April 1, the Croatian said, “Everyone asks me about it, but I really don’t know how to handle it emotionally. I would probably cry. It will be a tempting situation, but let’s wait and see how the draw plays out.”