Last week Dragan Skocic, the Croatian head coach of the Iranian national football team, told Al Jazeera Sport that he had endured months of incredible pressure after joining the team in February 2020, working as he was in the shadow of his predecessors, Marc Wilmots and Carlos Queiroz.
Now, Skocic is on the verge of creating a memorable record of his own. On Thursday, Iran’s Team Melli will face the national team of the UAE at Zabeel Stadium for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. It comes at a time when Iran is on formidable form, with a record of nine consecutive victories in nine games under Skocic. Can they make it ten?
Dragan Skocic arrived at a time when the Iranian national team was in the direst of straits, and became head coach in the strangest of circumstances. Earlier in 2019, Team Melli’s longest-serving manager, Carlos Queiroz, had finally left Tehran for Lisbon after eight years at the helm.
The three-time Asian champions had then come under the direction of Belgian coach Marc Wilmots. But Wilmots stepped down just seven months into a three-year contract, citing “serious contractual violations”, with FIFA later ordering Iran to pay him $6million in compensation.
Around the same time in December 2019, the then-president of the Iranian Football Federation Mehdi Taj resigned – officially on the advice of his doctors, but also at a time when he was beset by corruption allegations – and the mantle was taken up by Haidar Baharvand.
After Wilmots’ departure, the Italian Gianni de Biasi was considered for the now-vacant post of head coach. But detractors were put off by a speech the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ali Khamenei, had given in August that year during a meeting with scientific Olympiad medallists. “Iranian clubs and organizations are worthy,” the Ayatollah had said. “Of course, I do not interfere, but there is no need [for the presence of a foreign coach]. Some foreign coaches are good, some are not. They make a lot of money, they have high expectations, sometimes they don’t work. I don’t believe that this is really necessary; no, no."
The speech had had a chilling effect. In the aftermath, many non-Iranian sports coaches at both club and national levels had left post. The two options left on the Iranian Football Federation’s table for head coach were those of Amir Ghalehvani, the former manager of Iran’s Gol Gohar Sirjan Football Club, and Ali Taj, Mehdi Taj’s grandson. Then, Dragan Skocic came forward at the eleventh hour.
Some Iranian media outlets directed heavy criticism at Skocic, in deference to the Supreme Leader’s words. Others, though, saw it in a more positive light: Skocic understood the Iranian football community well, and as one pundit pointedly said, “receives his money in rials in an Iranian bank account”.
The appointment in February 2020 was just the beginning. As he related in the Al Jazeera interview, what Skocic then had in front of him was Iran in regional third place, five points behind Iraq, “doomed to compensate” and with player morale ebbing away. But curiously enough, the outset of Covid-19 had a positive impact for the team. The postponement of matches granted them the reprieve they needed to get back on track before the rest of the qualifiers. In the same period, Bahrain and Iraq both faltered.
Since then, the Iranian national team has played just three friendly matches but won all of them, beating Uzbekistan 2-1, Bosnia 2-0, and finally Syria 3-0 in April this year. Iranian media criticized Skocic's apparent reluctance to attend friendly matches before the official ones, but the strategy seemed to work, as Team Melli then won all four of its matches against Hong Kong, Bahrain, Cambodia and Iraq in the second round of World Cup qualifiers. With two further victories against Syria and Iraq in the third round, Iran is now on a nine-win streak.
The odds are now firnly on for Iran to win in its match against the UAE on Thursday. The home team has a patchy season, having drawn all of its matches so far in the third round. The UAE also doesn’t have a brilliant record against Iran: the pair have competed 11 times in official matches to date, with Iran winning eight and the other three ending in a draw, and Iran has won four out of five friendlies. The only win against Iran the UAE ever recorded was back in September 1997. If Dragan Skalcic thought he was under pressure last year, there’ll be no chance of that lifting tomorrow.