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Iran given England, USA tests at first World Cup in Middle East
Sports Desk

Iran will open its campaign at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar against England at Al Rayyan’s Khalifa International Stadium on November 21.

The eagerly-awaited draw for a first-ever World Cup to be staged in the Middle East took place on Friday in the Qatari capital of Doha, where Iran was the first name to be picked out of Pot 3 and drawn into Group B, which also features USA and one of Wales, Scotland or Ukraine.

Iran will have to wait until June to learn which European opponent it will face on November 25 as the winner of the match between Scotland and Ukraine will play Wales in Cardiff for the last slot in the group.

The final round of fixtures in the group will see Iran take on USA in a repeat of the clash between the two geopolitical foes at the 1998 World Cup in France, which Iran won 2-1.

The game will be played at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 29 – a memorable date on the calendar for Iranian football fans since their national team played to a 2-2 draw against Australia in Melbourne in 1997 to celebrate only a second qualification for the World Cup finals.


Pursuing history


Having dominated the Asian qualifiers, which saw Iran win eight in 10 to finish atop the qualification group, Dragan Skocic’s men will be chasing a historic group campaign by making it to the knockouts at the sixth time of asking.

Ranked 21st in the latest FIFA Ranking on Thursday – top in the continent – Iran came within inches of a last-16 place at the World Cup in Russia four years ago, finishing third in the group with four points – one adrift of the top two Spain and Portugal.

The Asian powerhouse will be inspired by a group of players playing in the European clubs – namely Mehdi Taremi of Porto, Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun, and skipper Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who plays for Dutch outfit Feyenoord – in Qatar and the Iranian fans will be hoping their experience of playing alongside each other in the national team for the past five or six years will contribute to Iran’s progress to the knockout round.

“England, USA, and the third team – whoever that’s going to be – play a similar style of football. England will be the favorite to win the group but I guess we can compete with the other two teams to progress. Overall, I’m pleased with the outcome of the draw. It could have been a tougher group for us,” Skocic told Croatian television HRT.

England is already among the favorites to lift the trophy at the Lusail Iconic Stadium on December 18.

Rejuvenated under manager Gareth Southgate since former English center-back took over in 2016, England has been among the finest European national teams over the past few years and will be eyeing a first major trophy since the 1966 World Cup triumph.

Having reached the World Cup last four in Russia, Southgate’s side made it all the way to final showpiece at the European Championship, only to suffer a shootout defeat against Italy on home soil in July last year.

“It’s intriguing, isn’t it?” Southgate said of the draw.

“Because we’ve never played Iran and then the States … I’ve met Gregg Berhalter [the USA manager] a lot recently so we’ve had some good chats and he’s got them vastly improved. This is one of those groups where you’re thinking that some of the ties are potentially trickier than just the rankings. That’s always a danger.”

The England defender, Kyle Walker, was a little more forthright in his assessment. “You’ve got to be happy with the teams we’ve drawn,” Walker said, back in England. “Hopefully it’s not going to bring any surprises. I’m happy with the teams.”

The prospect of a British derby – should either Wales or Scotland book a place in Qatar – will add even more excitement to the group fixtures in Group B, which have already been politically charged by the match between Iran and USA.

However, the managers of Iran and USA were quick to rule out the four-decade long rift between the two countries affecting the match, saying they were focused on the tournament and its ability to bring people together.

"I am thinking only about football and not exterior things," Iran head coach Skocic said.

"I hope that football makes a good contact and good relationship between people and that is what people expect of sport," added the Croatian.

Berhalter, whose team only managed to seal the third and final direct CONCACAF spot at the World Cup, echoed his opposite number’s sentiment after the draw.

"I think it is about soccer at the end of the day and the best sign of friendship that you can make is competing hard on the field, in a fair way and that is what the World Cup is all about and what makes it special," the American said.

"We have a ton of respect for Iran and how they qualified and we are looking forward to competing against them."


Other groups


Elsewhere in the draw, the host and debutant in the competition, Qatar, was drawn into Group A alongside three-time runner-up the Netherlands, Senegal, which recently won the Africa Cup of Nations, and Ecuador, which finished above Peru, Colombia, and Chile in the South American qualifiers.

The opening match of the World Cup will see the reigning AFC Asian Cup champion square off against Ecuador at Al Khor’s Al Bayt Stadium on November 21.

In Group C, Argentina will face Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Poland.

Lionel Messi will hope to build on last year’s Copa America title en route to winning the ultimate prize in Qatar in what will probably be the last World Cup appearance for the Argentine superstar.

Defending champion France was drawn against Denmark, Tunisia and the winner of the intercontinental playoff – featuring Australia, the UAE, and Peru – in Group D.

"It could have been easier or harder," France coach Didier Deschamps said.

"We know Denmark well and we will get to know each other even better with our matches in the Nations League in June and September."

European heavyweights Spain and Germany will go head-to-head in Group E, with Japan and either Costa Rica or the New Zealand also in the mix.

"It's a strong group if you take into consideration Germany but we are on top of the group because of our merits, the work we have being doing in recent years," Spain manager Luis Enrique said.

"We're not going to change how we play whether it's the World Cup or a friendly or the Euros. Our style is very clear... and it will be very difficult to play against us. This is the message I have to give. We respect our opponents, anyone can beat us but we can beat anyone too."

Belgium, 2018 finalist Croatia, Canada, and Morocco complete the lineup in Group F.

The toughest group looks to be Group G which put five-time World Cup winner Brazil against Serbia, Switzerland and Cameroon.

Brazil coach Tite certainly knows the size of the task ahead. "If you see recent results from our opponents... We will have to work to be able to cope well," he said.

"I watched the Swiss (qualifying) game against Italy, a world-class, high-level game. We will need to be at our highest level."

Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portuguese teammates were pitted against Uruguay, Ghana, and South Korea in Group H.


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