The Iranian and Iraqi national football teams are due to face off in Tehran for the 2022 World Cup qualifiers in two days’ time. Barely 48 hours before one of the most anticipated matches of the season, the Iranian Football Federation has announced that three of its players have tested positive for coronavirus.
Ahmed Nourollahi, a midfielder hailing from the UAE’s Al Shabab Al Arabi FC, striker Sardar Azmoun, of Russia’s Zenit FC, and Ehsan Hajsafi, whose home club is AEK Athens in Greece, are officially off the roster for Thursday’s game at Azadi Stadium.
Both teams are currently in disarray, with five Iranian players stranded in Turkey last night, a dozen PCR tests still yet to return results and an outbreak of coronavirus in the Iraqi camp. What do we know so far, and can the match still be salvaged?
Which National Team Players are at Risk?
Mojtaba Khorshidi, head of the Iranian national football team, also revealed on Monday night in a live radio interview with Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting that no fewer than five other national team players were now "stuck" at Istanbul airport. He blamed “bad weather” for the flight cancellation: heavy snow in Turkey saw a number of flights suspended on Monday.
Khorshidi refused to name the affected players. But subsequent enquiries make it clear the five who were trapped for up to 12 hours were Amir Abedzadeh, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Payam Niazmand, Karim Ansari-Fard, and Mehdi Taromi. The technical team are worried that having been stuck at a presumably busy airport for a long period, they could now be at greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
Hours after Khorshidi’s remarks, Hossein Sharifi announced that Jahanbakhsh was on a flight back to Tehran. But the other four, he said, would likely be stranded until Tuesday morning. All five ought to have returned negative PCR tests in the country of origin in order to fly, and based on the Federation’s own rules will have to pass another test on arrival in Tehran in order to train. If any one of them tests positive, there is little realistic prospect of them being able to make the World Cup qualifier against Iraq – or indeed the UAE on February 1.
On Monday, Khorshidi said, training by the national team for one of its most important matches of the season was held with just six players present. The other 12 are still awaiting a negative test. Arguably the worst-off was Mehdi Taromi, who had flown from Portugal to Turkey but did not even make it as far as Istanbul; his flight landed at Dalaman, 800km away from the capital on the southwestern coast.
What Would it Take for the Match to be Deferred?
With three players struck down by Covid-19 and a dozen others still waiting for test results, the Iranian national team and fans are squaring up to the grim possibility of the Iran-Iraq match being postponed. In his interview with the IRIB, Mojtaba Khorshidi ruled this out.
The decision will not be up to him. The rules of both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation are clear: to enter the world cup qualifiers, or any other international match supervised by one of these two bodies, teams must nominate 13 players (11 in the main list and two reserves) who are able to make the game.
There are 26 players on Team Melli, of whom three have so far tested positive for coronavirus. Two new players, Kamal Kamiabinia and Soroush Rafiei have been added to the main list, while other test results are pending. The match will only be cancelled if 14 out of the 26 test positive, so even accounting for the hyper-infectiousness of the Omicron variant, it seems likely that the match will still go ahead – even if not with the squad managers hoped for.
What About Covid-19 in the Iraqi Camp?
No country is immune to SARS-CoV-2, and the Iraqi Football Federation is under a similar level of strain. On Thursday, January 20, managers announced that no fewer than five players – Frans Putros, Zidane Iqbal, Mohanad Jeahze, Amir Al-Ammari, and Ali Al-Hamadi – had tested positive for coronavirus and would not be travelling to Tehran. All five were on the Iraqi national team’s The team’s woes were then compounded on Sunday, when manager Gath Muhana confirmed that defender Ali Faez had also been knocked out of the match by a positive test. Two more followed on Monday, with Yasser Kasim and Manaf Younis having to sit the match out.
There is still a good chance that Iraq will be able to put forward 13 players for Thursday’s match. Both teams have been compromised by the spread of Omicron but the game could be salvaged if Covid-19 does not spread any further within the ranks. The stakes are high for both: Iran only needs one more victory to secure its place at the Qatar World Cup, while Iraq, fifth in group with just four points, badly needs the win to stay in the running.