The 2023 Asian Cup in Qatar could be the last rodeo for several of Iran’s veteran footballers, according to coach Amir Ghalenoei. As they prepare to face the host nation in the semifinals on Wednesday, Ghalenoei acknowledges this tournament represents a final shot at glory for some of his aging squad.
“I think football is like life,” Ghalenoei mused through a translator. “You have to seize the opportunities before you. For some of our players, yes, this may be their last chance or even their last dance to achieve something meaningful.”
Currently riding a 16-match unbeaten streak under Ghalenoei’s second stint as manager, Iran finds itself on the cusp of history. “We stand at a critical juncture in Iranian football history,” Ghalenoei continued. “We have an excellent opportunity to make history for Iranian football and the Iranian people. We must capitalize on this chance. We must give everything to overcome Qatar and reach the Asian Cup final.
Iran’s 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Japan earned them this semifinal date with the hosts. The Iranians can call upon several experienced professionals at European clubs, including Alireza Jahanbakhsh of Feyenoord, Brentford’s Saman Ghoddos, Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, and Roma forward Sardar Azmoun. Domestic Iranian giants like Sepahan, Persepolis and Esteghlal also contribute heavily to the national team.
In total, Iran’s 26-man squad contains 11 players with 50 or more international caps. Only 4 players have fewer than 10 caps. This extensive experience comes with a price, however – Iran fields one of the oldest squads in the Asian Cup. 25-year-old Mohammad Mohebi, who scored the equalizer against Japan, was the youngest player in Iran’s starting lineup. Just four players in the entire squad are under 26.
With Taremi returning from suspension and only three days rest between matches, Ghalenoei acknowledged there would be changes to his side. Midfielder Saeed Ezatolahi voiced displeasure with the quick turnaround after the Japan match. Ezatolahi also questioned the appointment of Kuwaiti referee Ahmad Al Ali for the semifinal.
“He’s an Arabian guy,” Ezatolahi said via translator. “We’re wondering how it’s possible they assigned an Arab ref for tomorrow’s match.”
Meanwhile, Qatar manager Tintín Márquez – who replaced Carlos Queiroz in December – claimed he pays little attention to who referees his matches. Instead, he focuses on his own squad and how to reverse their poor record against the Iranians.
Under Queiroz last October, Iran smashed Qatar 4-0 at the Jordan International Tournament, part of a six-game winning streak over the hosts where they outscored them 11-1. “Reaching the semifinals is an accomplishment, but our aspirations grow larger now,” said Qatar midfielder Tarek Salman through a translator.
“We are more motivated to make the final. It will be difficult against Iran, requiring full concentration from the first minute to the last.”
Large home crowds have supported the defending champions throughout the Asian Cup, despite a disappointing World Cup performance on home soil 14 months ago. But Márquez downplayed the significance of falling short now.
“Not reaching the final is not considered failure,” he insisted via translator. “This is our second straight semifinal, and we won the 2019 tournament. Yes, we are passionate about making the final and being crowned champions again. But we cannot call it failure if we fall short.”
“There are big names who’ve been eliminated already – Australia, Japan, other powers didn’t make the semis. So we can’t say failing to reach the final is failure.”
For Qatar, this Asian Cup represents a chance at redemption after their disastrous World Cup campaign. For Iran’s veterans, it may be their last opportunity for international glory. With a monumental clash looming, the stakes could not be higher for both nations.
Yet while Qatar has home field advantage, Iran enters with confidence. They have dominated this rivalry of late, and field a seasoned squad. With the hopes of their country upon them, Iran’s veterans like Taremi and Azmoun seem determined to deliver one final triumph.