Saturday, 14 December 2013 00:00
REUTERS: Iranians greeted the country’s qualification for the World Cup and a landslide presidential vote earlier this year with equal fervour, their joy at the exit of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad matched by the thrill of a fourth trip to soccer’s showpiece.
Six months on from June’s street parties and the mood in Iran remains upbeat following the election of moderate Hassan Rouhani and a breakthrough agreement that could resolve a decade-long nuclear dispute and ultimately lead to the lifting of crippling sanctions.
In a country where soccer is the number one sport and crowds at international matches regularly top 90,000, a relatively kind World Cup draw also has fans optimistic that Team Melli - coached by former Real Madrid trainer Carlos Queiroz - can claim their first win at the finals since 1998.
Then, Iran beat long-standing political foe the United States 2-1. The enmity between the two countries remains, with Washington the main architect of a punishing sanctions regime that has ravaged Iran’s economy, but some Iranian fans hope a good showing in Brazil can bolster international perceptions of their country.
“Football has a unique standing in society - people believe with the election and Iran qualifying that things are getting better,” said Human Afazeli, Iran assistant coach at the 2006 World Cup. “It was a very good feeling for people.”
Iran, 45th in FIFA’s world rankings and Asia’s top-rated side, have been drawn against two-times winners Argentina, reigning African champions Nigeria and tournament debutants Bosnia.