The taste of defeat is bitter. It sticks in your mouth and can even blister. But sometimes the who, the how and the where of the defeat make a difference. Spain’s defeat against Iran in Kazan was of course bitter, but not so bitter it was humiliating. We had great dreams and we still do, even if they need a miracle to be realized.
Iran entered the game with a line-up of Alireza Biranvand, Morteza Pouraliganji, Majid Hosseini, Ehsan Hajsafi, Omid Ebrahimi, Saeed Ezatolahi, Vahid Amiri, Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarifard. The absence of Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Masoud Shojaei was a disappointing surprise from Carlos Queiroz. For its part, Spain entered the field of battle against Iran with David de Gea, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Isco, David Silva, Andrés Iniesta, Lucas Vázquez and Diego Costa.
It was expected that Spain would start the game with an offense strategy, but Iran’s defense was so dense that at times the Spanish players could not find space to pass the ball to each other. At the sixth minute, however, Iran got a free kick after a counter-offensive.
At the ninth minute, Spain compensated that free kick in a most dangerous way. When the game reached the 15th minute, both goals were blocked. Spain still attempted to approach Iran’s goal, but a wall of six Iranian defenders against four Spanish players left them with no line of attack. There could be no doubt that Iranian midfielders had been given two instructions: Either commit a foul, or force the Spanish players to commit one in the midfield.
Fear of Offside
In defense, Iran did its best to follow the plan that had been set out, but in offense, the players’ stress was evident. Sometimes you got the feeling that closing on David de Gea’s goal could not be real, but just a dream. For instance, at the 17th minute, Mehdi Taremi lost a great opportunity to score a goal because he was unsure whether he was onside. Then Iran crawled back into its defensive shell. Spanish midfielder Sergio Ramos managed to get the ball into Iran’s penalty zone, giving Spain control of the ball and of the field.
It was during these minutes that you could see the real difference between Iran’s game against Morocco and this game. Unlike previously, this time Iran did not play a balanced match after the 15th minute because Spain did not allow it. But no matter what, Omid Ebrahimi and Saeed Ezatolahi, the two Iranian defensive midfielders, put on an impressive show.
Two Different Coaches
From the 30th minute on, the very different styles and approaches of the two coaches was also obvious. Queiroz shouted at his players excitedly, while Fernando Hierro applauded his apprentices from the sidelines. The Spanish head coach eventually started to worry about how the game was going, while Queiroz encouraged his team to be more energetic. The encouragement did not go unheeded. In one counter-offensive, Iran suddenly advanced and Ramin Rezaian reached the corner on the Spanish side, threatening the Spanish goal.
In defense, Iranian players — each one of them — showed incredible character and covered each other beautifully, even when they resorted to diving.
Payback for the Moroccan Goal
Spain started the second half with an exceptional offense. In less than three minutes they were close to scoring a goal but Iran’s goal remained intact. Biranvand made two saves, and Hajsafi prevented another goal. But at the 54th minute, Iran’s goal was finally compromised. Diego Costa brought Spain’s tiki-taka style of playing to fruition and Ramin Rezaian paid for the goal that Morocco had inflicted on itself. He struck the ball full force with his right foot and the ball ricocheted off Costa, past Biravand into the Iranian goal.
Now the Iranian players were afraid, very afraid. Since Queiroz has been coach, whenever Iran has been behind in a game, it has lost. But could fans expect something different this time, at the World Cup?
Iran became cautious. Queiroz’s plans were perhaps shattered by the goal. But he definitely did not want the goal breached for a second or third time. By now, though, the Spanish were determined.
The Goal that Did not Count
Then Iran roared into action. The team got a free kick and, after a scramble, Saeed Ezatolahi scored. But the referee ruled it offside, and the Video Assistant Referee agreed. Ezatolahi was not offside on the free kick, but when a teammate headed the ball off Ezatolahi, he had strayed a yard offside. So the score remained in Spain’s favor, and the Spanish team went on the offensive again.
The worst possible news was to come with left defender Ehsan Hajsafi sustaining an injury. Throughout the game, Hajsafi made the Spanish players nervous and this was not something that Hierro and his team wanted.
When Ehsan Hajsafi left the field, Queiroz replaced him with Milad Mohammadi. As with the two replacements in the game against Morocco, the replacement was forced on Iran and was not a tactical move. At the 73rd minute, Queiroz at last brought Jahanbakhsh into the game. It is not clear why Queiroz had left him off for so long, but the Iranian football star had sat on the bench up until that moment.
Then, at the 82nd minute, Iran nearly scored. Vahid Amiri kicked the ball between the legs of Pique and a header from Mehdi Taremi at the edge of the six-yard-box almost made it into the goal, but the ball went over.
During the last 15 minutes of the game, Iran showed a different approach, pushing forward. But Spain eyed counterattacks of its own. At the 85th minute, Saman Ghoddos, who had been sitting on the bench the whole time, entered the field. And yet the fear of more goals from Spain held Iran back.
Then the game was over. Iran had lost. Besides everything else, Iran also had some bad luck. Perhaps Iran’s luck had run out after playing against Morocco. And yet the loss was not a humiliating one, and this made all the difference.
More about Iran at the 2018 World Cup:
Queiroz: "The God of Football Will Decide”, June 20, 2018
Iran Vs Spain: Before the Match, June 20, 2018
Mehdi Mahdavikia in Kazan, June 20, 2018
Big Boost in Jersey Sales as Iran Celebrates Win, June 18, 2018
Iran’s Victory against Morocco: The World Responds, June 17, 2018
Iran’s Last-Minute Miracle Win, June 15, 2018
Iran Fans in Moscow's Red Square, June 14, 2018
Iran vs. Morocco: The First Challenge, June 14, 2018
Decoding Iran’s Politics: Football and State Interference, June 11, 2018