Asia awaits neighbourly rivalry
With a continent as diverse as Asia, you are always going to get some, shall we say, tasty rivalries. Some stem purely from the beautiful game itself. South Korea and Iran have met at the quarter-final stage of the last four continental competitions, Japan and Australia started to look out for each other after the Socceroos' win at the 2006 World Cup, while Uzbekistan have unfinished business with Bahrain after their controversial play-off in September 2005.
Others are a result of history and/or geography. East Asia has its own thing going on with Japan, China and the two Koreas, while at the opposite end of the continent, West Asia is not the uniform region that many assume it to be with numerous rivalries and resentments to stoke the fire of many a football match.
The 2011 Asian Cup match that takes place between Iran and Iraq on Tuesday, their first match in Group D, ticks all the right boxes including those of geography, religion and history. There isn't a great deal of football-inspired ill-feeling between the two nations, as Iranian fans take most pleasure in defeating Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, but that could be about to change.
The Persians lifted the last of their continental titles in 1976 and want the trophy back; an opening-game win against the defending champions would be a statement of intent. "Iran are going to end their 35-year title drought," said Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi in the build-up to the game. "For a country like Iran, with such a history, we always aim to win the championship."
Iraq may be the current holders but Iran were the top team in Asia in the late '60s and early '70s, winning three Asian titles in a row. That run came to an end in 1980 - the same year that Saddam Hussain ordered his forces over the border into Iran, sparking the Iran-Iraq war that was to last eight long years and cost over a million lives.
Politics has never been far from the pitch in Baghdad or Tehran. Iraq's only appearance on the global stage came in 1986 in the middle of the madness that followed when the dictator put his eldest son in charge of the Olympic Committee. Uday Saddam then went to town on the national team, though the world wasn't to find out for a number of years about the concrete football kickabouts and the beatings that the players had to cope with.
Even after the US-led invasion in 2003 ended Saddam Hussein's reign, FIFA suspended the Iraqi FA in 2008 citing governmental interference, shortly after doing the same to Iran. If Saddam openly put his son in charge of the national team in the '80s, the Iranian government was, and remains, only a little less involved in the day-to-day running of football. The example of only one of the top flight's 20 teams not being owned, directly or indirectly, by the state is just one of hundreds available.
There will be plenty of articles appearing in Tehran's excitable sports media over the next 48 hours. Iran is football-crazy and loves its national team, known as 'Team Melli'. However, it has been a tough few years since qualification for the 2006 World Cup. There were high hopes going into Germany. A group containing Portugal, Mexico and Angola didn't look especially tough and with the likes of Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, two players with Bayern Munich history, as well as Vahid Hashemian, Medhi Mahdavikia and Javad Nekounam, 'Team Melli' and Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic were looking at a first-ever place in the second round. In the end, amid rumours of infighting and splits in the dressing room that centred around the two Alis, Iran collected just a point.
A year later, the three-time winners crashed out of the Asian Cup at the quarter-final stage while Iraq ending up winning the tournament. That success was unexpected. Preparations could hardly have been worse. The team hadn't played in Baghdad since the invasion, which played a big part in failing to reach the final stage of qualification for the 2006 World Cup. That was not the worst of it. Not long before the Asian Cup started, the team's physio was killed by a Baghdad bomb and by the time the tournament kicked off, goalkeeper Noor Sabri was mourning his brother-in-law with a number of the squad having similar terrible tales to tell.
In the end, they won the competition and, for the first time ever, put the Asian Cup on the front pages of newspapers around the world. For once, the world had a positive Iraq-related story to read about. Younis Mahmoud, the striker, the captain and one-time rumoured Marseille target, who scored the only goal of the final said: "We've done something that the Americans haven't and united Iraq."
To do it again will be more difficult. Younis, along with fellow stars of 2007, Nashat Akram and Hawar Mulla Mohamed, is still in the team and needs to be on top form to first get through what is the toughest group in the entire tournament with North Korea and UAE completing the quartet. If that is done then a probable quarter-final with Australia or South Korea, two teams that should be considerably stronger in this competition than four years ago, awaits.
Stability hasn't existed in Iraqi football for a long time and current boss Wolfgang Sidka is the seventh coaching change since the triumph in Jakarta just three-and-a-half years ago. The failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup is not unconnected with those comings and goings and the inconsistent Lions of Mesopotamia once again failed to reach the final round. The Confederations Cup campaign in 2009 under Bora Milutinovic was a great experience, but ultimately forgettable.
Iran have recent failures of their own to forget. Fans at home have been looking forward to this competition since missing out on qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Ghotbi was brought in for the final three games of that campaign and the Iranian-American was kept on - certainly not a foregone conclusion when it comes to Tehran.
The energetic tactician, who led Tehran titans Persepolis to the 2008 league title, has had a tough time with sections of the media since his appointment and it must have come with some relief that he announced in November that he was taking over J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse on February 1, three days after the Asian Cup final in Doha. Questions as to what effect this will have on the team will be answered soon.
But preparation has been relatively good. Unlike the Koreas, Japan and Australia who had the small matter of South Africa to contend with and focus on, along with the inevitable coaching changes since, Iran have had a smooth ride to Qatar with impressive friendly wins in China and South Korea standing out.
The defeat in the final of the West Asian Football Championships at the hands of Kuwait in September was a disappointment, but the semi-final did feature a 2-1 win over Iraq. The two haven't met in a competitive match since qualification for the 2002 World Cup, with the Persians triumphing both home and away.
Now, this is bigger. The eyes of Asia, and perhaps the world, will be fixed on Doha for this West Asian clash that has more than pride at stake. Whether Iraq have what it takes to repeat their success and whether Iran can recapture their glory days will become a little clearer after Tuesday's tussle . Both teams are itching to show what they can do by putting their neighbours to the sword and writing a new chapter in what is only going to become an ever-fiercer rivalry.