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Team Melli Starts FIFA World Cup With Victory

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Team Melli Starts FIFA World Cup With VictoryTeam Melli Starts FIFA World Cup With Victory

Team Melli edged past Morocco in the opening match of Group B at Russia FIFA World Cup on Friday.

Morocco’s unfortunate stoppage time own goal proved fatal for the African side as they had no time to make up for it with only one minute remaining before the final whistle. The game ended 1-0 in Iran’s favor.   

The African team had a very strong start and created several scoring chances within the first 20 minutes which were all denied by a robust  defense from the Iranians, especially the vigilant goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.              

Iranian players had little to do but to try to get the ball in the early stage of the match -- they were barely 18% in possession of the ball in the first quarter of the game while the Moroccans’ possession was 82%.

But a counter-attack from Iran’s Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh in the 20th minute, though it did not bear fruit, relieved them from the mounting pressure. From then on the Moroccans played more cautiously and Iran performed better in the late minutes before the half time. The two teams went into the break with a goalless draw.

In the second half both teams lost scoring chances up to the final minutes when a terrible mistake by Aziz Bouhaddouz opened Morocco’s goal in the 95th minute. The tragedy for the Africans happened when Bouhaddouz, who came to the pitch in the second half as a substitute, tried to defend an Ehsan Haj-Safi’s late free-kick wide at the near post but headed it straight into his own net. Morocco was in ruins, to say the least. 

Data has is that Morocco was the superior team with 69% possession, 13 shots, 3 shots on target and 5 corners against Iran’s 31% possession, 9 shots 2 of which were on target and 2 corners. However, it was Team Melli that bagged the three precious points in the global event. 

With the win Iran also ended Morocco’s record of 18 unbeaten games prior to the match in St. Petersburg.

Iran’s victory is also important for Asia especially after Saudi Arabia had a disappointing start in the opening game. The Arab nation was destroyed by the host Russia 5-0 on Thursday in Moscow. Two other Asian representatives Japan and South Korea will have test their mettle in the coming days.

“After so many years in this business, the first game of a World Cup is always difficult and tough and this was no different - but it was also beautiful,” said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz after the game.

“We knew they have a very strong and powerful start to the game - always with full speed and a great attacking spirit. So our strategy was, from the first minute, to create a mental collapse in the Moroccan players. We tried to do that by creating frustration and block all the playmakers and the players who can create something,” he added.

Queiroz said it was a beautiful win with three points “and now it is time to rest and think about the game against Spain and a different strategy.”

Morocco coach Herve Renard said his team was “crucified” by the late goal but remained optimistic.

“In a competition where three matches need to be played, as long as there are still two matches to be played, whoever the opponents, there is still hope,” he said. “We are in a difficult situation but many things can happen so we need to concentrate on what we did right and things we did not do so well.”

  Second Win After 20 Years

It was Iran’s fifth presence in the World Cup. In the last four appearances, Team Melli never advanced to the knockout stage and among all the 12 games played, it won just one match in 1998 when Iran had its first World Cup three points with a 2-1 win against the US. After 20 years, the national team got a real sense of sweet victory. 

In 1998, Hamid Estili and Mehdi Mahdavikia scored two goals for Team Melli and Brian McBride scored for the US so that Iran earned three points of its second group match. The national team had narrowly lost its first match to Yugoslavia, only to a free kick goal by Siniša Mihajlović.

For advancing to the last 16, the Iranians then needed to beat Germany in the last group game. But Oliver Bierhoff and Jürgen Klinsmann, two key German players, each scored a goal and forced Iran to wrap up its campaign with the three points at the group’s third place and say goodbye to the cup.

However, this time Iran has started its run with a morale boosting win which can help the team do what a nation has yearned (qualifying from the group stage) for 40 years (since Iran’s first run in the World Cup in 1978.

  Group of Death

After the World Cup finals draw last December, almost everyone agreed that Group B was the “death group” among all the eight groups as it comprises the 2010 World Cup champion Spain, UEFA Euro 2016 champion Portugal, 2018 African Nations Championship champion Morocco and Asia’s first team in FIFA ranking Iran.

Many praised Iran’s unbeaten record during the qualifiers, the team’s strong defense (receiving only two goals), its head coach, and young strikers Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Jahanbakhsh who can make a difference for Iran. 

Having said that, Team Melli would be no match for the likes of Spain and Portugal and the two European teams are favorites to top the group and move to the next stage.

Portugal and Spain met on Friday. The two giants seemed to have equal power and shared points finishing in a 3-3 draw. The result means that with the first games over, Iran is now atop Group B with three points followed by Portugal and Spain each with one point while Morocco sits at the bottom with no points. 

Topping the death group (even for a short time) was not predicted even by the most optimistic observers. Now that this has happened, it should be regarded as a good omen which can lead to the team’s first qualification from the group stage if Iran manages a good performance against the two European powerhouses in the two remaining games. 

  A Nation Celebrates

The final whistle of Iran’s match was blown at about 9:20 pm (local time) and minutes after fans in Tehran and other cities poured into the streets to celebrate the national team’s victory. 

Traffic on the many streets, specially the north-south artery, Valiasr Street in Tehran, reduced to a crawl as hundreds of cars honked and jubilant fans hung out of windows waving the Iranian flag. 

By midnight, pounding music and fireworks could be heard across the city and the celebrations showed no sign of letting up.

Iranians have strongly supported their national soccer team whenever it has reached the World Cup.

According to the AFP, this year’s victory was all the more sweeter given the rough journey the players have faced, with Quieroz complaining about limited resources and poor facilities for the squad. The players were also the latest victim of US sanctions, with Nike refusing to provide the team with football boots, saying it would breach the US trade embargo on Iran.

That quickly gave rise to a popular meme on social media after the victory with the Nike logo and an altered slogan reading: “We just did it. Without you.” Iran will face Spain in the next Group B match on June 20, before playing Portugal five days later.

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