In the second part of IranWire’s series about Iran’s national football team, Payan Yunesipour looks at the early days of Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz’s career in Iran — from the coach’s demands and aspirations and pushback from his critics to the corruption embedded in some sections of Iran’s football federation.
In the early days, it was all praise. In Asia, especially in those days, there was no bigger name than Carlos Queiroz. So it was only natural for the Iranian coach Majid Jalali to say: “Queiroz is what a great coach is.” And Parviz Mazloomi, coach for Esteghlal Football Team at the time, expressed hope that Queiroz would continue his “youth-centered” policy.
But when Queiroz announced who his assistants would be — Antonio Simões da Costa and Dan Gaspar from Portugal, Mick McDormott from the United States and Omid Namazi from Iran — attitudes changed. Not Alireza Mansourian, not Human Afazeli and not Akbar Mohammadi. The football federation’s three favorites were left out, and though they never took a public position against Queiroz, the flood of criticisms started immediately. In June 2011 football manager Majid Jalali appeared on TV program 90, accusing “the gentlemen” of trying to bring Americans into Iran. He was referring to Omid Namazi, currently the head coach of the United States Under-18s soccer team, Afshin Ghotbi, a football coach with an international career. And there was Mick McDormott.
On May 20, 2011, Queiroz announced the first list for the national team. The following footballers were put forward: Iman Mobali (b. 1982), Mohammad Nosrati (b. 1982), Ghasem Dehnavi (b. 1981), Mostafa Seifi (b. 1985), Mohammad Gholami (b. 1983), Hassan Roudbarian (b. 1978), Ebrahim Mirzapour (b. 1978), Pejman Nouri (b. 1980), Saeed Daghighi (b. 1986), Bahador Abdi (b. 1984), Morteza Kashi (b. 1981) and Mohammad Ali Karimi (b. 1978). Later, Farhad Majidi (b. 1976) was added to the list. It was a team of oldies! Of course, there were a couple of younger names on the list — Omid Ebrahimi and Mehrdad Pouladi, both born in 1987.
But the serious challenges began in earnest in June 2011, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was forced to replace the Physical Education Organization with a new Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. Ali Saeedlou, the head of the organization, had tried to consolidate his position at the new ministry by spending a lot of money to hire world-renowned coaches including Carlos Queiroz and Julio Velasco, a celebrated volleyball coach. But Ahmadinejad soon removed him, replacing him with Mohammad Abbasi.
As soon as parliament confirmed Mohammad Abbasi’s appointment as Sports Minister, he immediately ordered the football and volleyball federations to review their contracts with Queiroz and Velasco. Following a short review, he challenged Ali Kafashian at a meeting of the heads of Iranian sports federations. “Is this a coach contract or the Treaty of Turkmenchay?” he asked, referring to a treaty Iran was forced to sign after a losing war against Russia in 1828. The loss has become a byword for humiliation for Iranians.
And, from that day on, “the Treaty of Turkmenchay” was added to the dictionary of insults Queiroz’s critics used against him.
Mohammad Abbasi might have been the first government official to criticize Queiroz. But what annoyed him about the contract so much?
According to the contract — which was signed by Ali Saeedlou and Ali Kafashian — Queiroz was granted a 90-day vacation outside of Iran each year. The contract also contained a clause that stipulated if the football federation did not fulfill the manager’s written request for physical facilities within three months, the contract would be terminated. His annual salary was set at €2 million — but the contract also stipulated that if Iran successfully went on to compete at the FIFA World Cup, Queiroz would receive 15 percent of the $8 million bonus FIFA paid to the federation.
The contract also obliged Iran’s Football Federation to find Queiroz a residence in Iran that would satisfy his personal taste. As it happened, he lived at Tehran’s Olympic Hotel for more than a year — allegedly because a high-level federation official was trying to pocket some money for himself through a shady deal.
According to the director of a travel agency who talked to a sports newspaper, an official responsible for finding residences for the federation’s technical staff suggested to Queiroz that he could arrange for the manager to be given a villa at an inflated price to the federation, and the two men could split the difference between themselves. Queiroz later asked the federation to sever ties between the official and Iran’s National Football Team. The move did not endear him to the new minister Mohammad Abbasi.
On February 29, 2012, Iran’s bid to qualify for the World Cup got underway, with a match between Iran and Qatar at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium ending in a 2-2 tie. Following this, Bahrain was eliminated from the competition and Qatar found its way to the finals for the region along with Iran.
“I was expecting that we would keep our lead,” Abbasi told reporters following the match. “For me, a tie with Qatar is no better than a defeat.” He then went to the locker room of Iran’s national team and told Queiroz that the scores he achieved “raises doubts.” Queiroz was apparently offended and left the locker room.
In fact, Abbasi was an expert in making memorable, cutting remarks. “In recent months, I have noticed that certain media outlets pay more attention to the aunts or the shoe brands of the national team players and the coach than to the problems of the youth,” he said on one occasion.
Little by little, Queiroz made a generational change in the national team. Former head coach Mohammad Mayeli Kohan and football manager Jalal Cheraghpour met in the office of Hamid Sajjadi, who was as that time first deputy to the Sports Minister. The first year of the new manager’s contract was drawing to a close — and these three officials wanted to find a way to get rid of him. (It seems that in Iran, there is always a Deputy Sports Minister by the name of “Sajjadi” trying to get rid of Carlos Queiroz. The mission has been the same — whether his first name is “Hamid” and he works for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or “Nasrollah,” and employed by Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s current president.)
In the meantime, however, Queiroz was busy bringing in younger players. Former head coach Amir Ghalenoei had once told Mehrdad Pouladi he was no good at football, but Queiroz moved him from an attacking midfielder to the best left defender of the national team. He also put Pejman Montazeri at the heart of defense and brought in Ashkan Dejagah as the attacking midfielder and Reza Ghoochannejhad as a striker.
This has been Queiroz’s biggest contribution: to bring big stars to the national team. When Amir Ghalenoei was the coach, he did invite Ashkan Dejagah to join the national team, but Dejagah rejected the offer. The rejection became a grudge for Ghalenoei who in 2012 publicly complained onRadio Javan about Dejagah's refusal to join when he was manager. But there had been differences in the two invitations. Queiroz talked directly with Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad. He did the same thing for the attacking midfielder Aria Jasuru Hasegawa, going to Japan to negotiate with him and his family and persuade him join the national team. Hasegawa was born to an Iranian father and a Japanese mother; his mother was against her son accepting Iranian citizenship.
But as just as Queiroz was discovering new Iranian football stars inside and outside Iran, the Ministry of Sports was putting together a scenario for driving him out.
Read part one in the series: Sports, Politics and the International Stage