After Iran beat Serbia in the Volleyball Nations League to move into the finals, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei congratulated the team on social media with a post titled “Happy success with an Iranian coach.”
A day later, on Monday, the Iranian football federation dismissed Dragan Skocic, the Croatian coach who has guided the national soccer team since February 2020.
While those events may not be connected, the leading candidates to replace Skocic with four months until the World Cup in Qatar are Iranian.
After clinching qualification for the World Cup in January, ‘Team Melli’ is preparing for high-profile games in Group B against England on Nov. 21 and the United States eight days later. Iran will also face Wales on Nov. 25.
A 2-1 loss in a friendly against Algeria last month, Iran’s only warmup game so far for the tournament, increased pressure on Skocic.
“The importance of the World Cup on a global scale and in terms of national pride has added to the urgency of the decision,” Afshin Ghotbi, an Iranian-American coach who was in charge of Iran’s national team from 2009 to 2011, told The Associated Press. “Especially with politically sensitive opponents such as England and the United States.
“While the team qualified easily for the World Cup, poor performances and results against strong opponents South Korea and Algeria have led to fans and key players losing faith in the coach.”
The national football federation has been considering whether Iran should be represented by a local in the same way as England, the United States and Wales have homegrown coaches in Gareth Southgate, Gregg Berhalter and Rob Page. An appointment could be made as early as this week.
Ghotbi, who was a member of the U.S. coaching staff at the 1998 World Cup when the team lost 2-0 to Iran, has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Skocic, along with two other former coaches.
Despite reports that Ali Daei has turned the job down, the country’s leading international goalscorer is still on the IFF’s shortlist, as is Amir Ghaleneoi, who led the team from 2006 to 2008.
Former Iran captain Javad Nekounam, a popular figure who made more than 150 appearances for the country as a player and is currently coaching leading club Foolad, is in the running. So are Yahya Golmohammadi, who has won two league titles with Tehran giant Persepolis, and Farhad Majidi.
If there is to be a foreigner in charge, then it may be one of two former coaches. Branko Ivankovic, another Croatian, led the team to the 2006 World Cup and is currently in charge of Oman. Former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz took Iran to the last two global tournaments and is currently available after being released by Egypt.
Iran has failed to progress past the first round in five previous trips to the World Cup but Ghotbi believes that the soccer team can match its volleyball counterparts and make history, particularly as the Middle East hosts its first World Cup.
“It is a tough group but it is one in which Iran can pass through to the knockout stage if the right decisions are made,” he said.
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