One of football’s great rivalries takes center-stage at the Asian Cup on Wednesday when Iran play Iraq still smarting from their controversial exit four years ago.
Iran played most of the classic 2015 quarter-final with 10 men after Mehrdad Pooladi’s hotly disputed first-half dismissal but when it ended 3-3 after extra-time, Iraq edged the penalty shoot-out.
Iran’s protest that Iraq yielded an ineligible player was dismissed as Carlos Queiroz’s three-time winners were sent packing from the tournament in Australia.
Four years on from their clash in Canberra, Iran forward Saman Ghoddos said memories were still fresh as Team Melli take on Iraq in their final game of Group D.
“Iraq are tough opponents and I think that this will be a revenge match for us,” said Ghoddos, according to Iran’s Varzesh3 website.
“I’ve been waiting for this match ever since the last Asian Cup. We will win this match for the people.”
Football is one of the remaining points of contention between the Middle East neighbors, who fought a bloody war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
Relations between the two countries have warmed since the removal of long-serving Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, but games between the two are not for the faint-hearted.
- ‘Political character’ -
Iran, the three-time Asian Cup winners, lead Iraq on goal difference at the top of Group D, with both teams already qualified for the next round.
Former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Queiroz, linked with a move to the Colombia national team after the Asian Cup, said his prime concern was maintaining Iran’s perfect start.
“In football, the most important match is always the next one and every match is like a final for us in the tournament,” Queiroz said.
“Iraq are a strong team and they are one of the favourites to win the title. We have to be at our best.”
Iran have not won the Asian title since 1976 but they have been the most impressive so far among the 24 teams in the newly-expanded tournament.
A 5-0 thrashing of Yemen was following by a clinical 3-0 victory over Southeast Asian champions Vietnam.
Iraq, meanwhile, came from behind to beat Vietnam 3-2, and then defeated Yemen 3-0. Facing Asia’s highest-ranked team will be a different challenge entirely, however.
“You can’t compare the matches we had with Vietnam and Yemen to the match against Iran,” said coach Srecko Katanec, who took his native Slovenia to the 2002 World Cup and joined Iraq in September.
“Vietnam played very fluid football for the first 45 minutes and we came out on top. Against Yemen, we were a little complacent and maybe that’s why we need to play a strong team, on paper, like Iran.”
The build-up to the game has been closely followed in both countries, with former Iraqi player Imad Mohammad telling AFP that Iraqi media had played up its “political character”.
“Iraq’s audience is looking at this match with a special lens that distinguishes it from all other matches that it played so far or that it will play in the Asia Cup,” said Iraqi journalist Ghazi Shaea.