Having fought to win the respect of Iran’s football public, Dragan Skocic now has a World Cup showdown with England and a politically charged clash with the United States to cement his international standing.
England manager Gareth Southgate admitted he knew little about the Iranian team his side will face on the opening day of the World Cup after they were put together in Group B at Friday’s draw in Doha.
England have been too busy with their own matches, he said.
“We know that they finished ahead of South Korea and if they have done that we know they have some pretty good players.”
FIFA has been urged to punish Iran for refusing to let women into a stadium for their last World Cup qualifier against Lebanon this week. But it is unlikely to impact a sixth appearance at the finals.
“We will try to advance. I always said we have a very good team and maybe we can advance for the first time,” Skocic, a former Croatian international player, told Iranian state news agency IRNA on Saturday.
“I think our draw could have been worse, for example, being in the Spain-Germany group. But our work will still be difficult and one cannot expect a simple group in the World Cup,” he added.
“England is the toughest team in my opinion,” adding “but our team is good enough to be able to compete with others.”
England’s research will show that Skocic lifted a demoralised side after taking over from Belgian Marc Wilmots in February 2020 when successive defeats left them in danger of failing to reach Qatar.
“We were in a difficult situation,” Skocic, who moved from the Iranian league to take charge of the national side, acknowledged.
But the 52-year-old has since led Iran to 15 wins, against one loss, and made them the top-ranked Asian side in the FIFA rankings.
Following Wilmots and the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, who took Iran to two World Cup finals in eight years, was not easy.
Skocic complained to Iranian media after Iran sealed its place in January that “many underestimated me and didn’t respect me but I’m very happy because I’ve proved myself.”
And now he is talking about the potential for upsets and Iran going past the opening groups for the first time.
“Football is interesting for people because it is unpredictable,” he said.
“We know that England are better than other teams at the moment but they have to show that in the game.”
– Forget politics –
Skocic also does not want to stir up the politics swirling around Iran’s clash with the United States on November 29.
Iran and the United States have been at daggers drawn since the Islamic revolution in 1979. And Iran scored a famous 2-1 win over the US team at the 1998 World Cup.
“I don’t care about this,” said Skocic. “Of course there is some story between the two but we will think only about football.”
In 1998, the Iranian and US players exchanged roses before the game. Neither Skocic nor his American counterpart Gregg Berhalter expect the same gesture this time.
“I want to see a good game and I don’t want to think about flowers and that story. I think the ball must speak,” he said.
Skocic said his side must forget the “emotion” of the politics.
He will be relying on players who went through previous World Cup campaigns, and the likes of Mehdi Taremi at Porto in Portugal, Sardar Azmoun at Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen and Alireza Jahanbakhsh at Feyenoord in the Netherlands who have played European football.
But they do not always make life easy for him. Taremi was dropped for two games last year after criticising Skocic.
Yet after more than eight years in Iran, which has faced years of international sanctions, Skocic insists he is happy.
The team trains in “good conditions” and he says he has made valuable friends.
“Iran is something different than people think. Everyone talks about the politics but I have never seen the hospitality that I have experienced in Iran.”