AZ Alkmaar claimed a comfortable 5 – 0 win over PEC Zwolle but it was the goal that wasn’t that was perhaps the most memorable
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As far as opening games go, it may not have been as bad (at least where the score is concerned) as their 8-0 loss to Germany in 2002, but Saudi Arabia’s listless opening day performance against an average Russia was about as bad as it got.
The Gulf nation surprised many by even making the World Cup, and their performance on day one shows just what an exceptional job Bert van Marwijk did to shape this team into a somewhat competitive unit.
The result saw an endless stream of people and pundits line up to smash Asian football, but truth be told this Saudi side were never going to be the flag bearers for the continent at the World Cup.
And having sat through a match between two low-ranked nations, many were also quick to bemoan the upcoming expansion to 48 teams in 2026, lest smaller nations get their chance to appear on the world stage.
With the line-up for day two including Egypt versus Uruguay and Spain versus Portugal, featuring all of the superstars these ‘Eurosnob’ (can you use that term when it comes to international football?) fans would rather see, it’s unlikely the match between Morocco and Iran would’ve got the juices flowing for many neutrals.
But for me this match epitomised the spirit of the World Cup, and why it’s not just a tournament of the top 32 nations in the world, but a representation of teams from all corners of the globe.
Neither side will win this year’s World Cup, which for some is reason enough to immediately tune out, but for both appearing at football global showpiece means so much more. This is Morocco’s first appearance in 20 years, while it’s the first time Iran has appeared in successive tournaments for the first time in their history.
Before the game both sets of fans would’ve enjoyed the same nervous anticipation that comes with the opening game of a tournament, knowing they needed to win if they were a chance of knocking Spain or Portugal out of the top two.
Ninety minutes later their respective emotions couldn’t be starker.
Iranians were dancing in the stands in St Petersburg and in the streets in Tehran after a last minute own-goal from Moroccan striker Aziz Bouhaddouz handed an historic win to Team Melli. The sheer ecstasy and joy was written all over the faces of the players, and in particular coach Carlos Queiroz.
World Cup wins have been few and far between for Iran. In 12 previous matches they’d won just once, a memorable 2-1 win over USA in 1998. This is a team Queiroz has built and moulded over his seven years in charge. He deserved a World Cup victory with his team, and the relief and joy was there for all to see after the match.
The post-match interviewer tried valiantly to get him to comment on the next match against Spain, but he was having none of it. He ‘didn’t care’ at that point, he wanted to enjoy and savour the moment. And rightly so. He has confirmed his legend status in the central Asian nation.
For their part the players lapped up the celebrations with the thousands of Iranians in the stands, not wanting the moment to end. While one TV pundit condescendingly suggested they were going over the top, claiming they were “celebrating like they’ve won the World Cup”, for the players it must have felt like they had.
For teams such as Iran, playing at the World Cup is a rare experience. Winning a game is even rarer.
And that is the beauty of the World Cup. Sure the tail end of the competition is about the very elite, pitting the best against the best, but the group stages are about more than that. The group stages are a celebration of the diversity football. There’s almost a purity to it that we don’t get a lot in football these days.
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And after the opening day humiliation of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s win was a desperately needed one for Asian football. The reputation of football in this part of the world copped a battering after Brazil, where none of the four teams managed to win a game, and it could ill-afford another poor tournament.
Iran’s win finally stopped the bleeding, being the first win for an Asian team at the World Cup since Japan’s 3-1 win over Denmark in South Africa.
And just as I was jumping for joy in the early hours of Saturday morning when the ball hit the back of the net, so too would’ve AFC officials…well, those that actually care about the game anyway.
This wasn’t just a victory for Iran, it was a victory for Asia.