In the eyes of many who witnessed their performances at the 1996 edition of the AFC Asian Cup, Iran were the team that could – indeed should – have won the continental championship when the tournament was played in the United Arab Emirates.
While Saudi Arabia won the title, defeating UAE in a penalty shootout in the final, it was Team Melli and their entertaining, enterprising style of play that captured imaginations and hearts all over Asia.
It was a team that seemed to have everything; the charismatic man-mountain Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh dominated in goal while the defence was marshaled by the eloquent Mohammad Khakpour.
Karim Bagheri, meanwhile, was a midfield powerhouse and Ali Daei and Khodadad Azizi provided a potent, devastating twin striking threat. There can be no debate that Iran possessed all the tools to take the trophy back to Tehran for the first time since 1976.
And yet, for all the thrilling football they played, Iran fell short, losing in a penalty shootout to Saudi Arabia in the semifinals before defeating Kuwait on penalties themselves to secure third place.
The performance was the nation’s finest since the most recent of their three title successes but, even today, Team Melli of 1996 is often remembered as the side that so nearly returned Iran to the very summit of the Asian game.
“That team was a very special team because we had a special generation in those days,” says Bagheri, whose presence at the heart of the side continually drove the Iranians forward.
“Still, even today, the names of those players are on the tongues of people everywhere.
“We had a very good team, it was very balanced and we could have won the title but we were unlucky in the semifinal, when we lost on penalties against Saudi Arabia. We were a bit unlucky.
“It was a super team. We had a very good team between 1996 and 1998 and we were able to qualify for the World Cup with almost the same players. I don’t think any team can hit the heights of that generation over the next few years. That was a very special group of players.”
In these days of Asian players moving en masse to join clubs in Europe, it is hard to imagine a team as talented as the side coached by Mohammad Mayeli Kohan was almost exclusively home-based.
Few of the players had experience playing outside Iran, with Khakpour and midfielder Hamid Reza Estili among those who had played overseas during a stint with Singaporean side Geylang United while Daei was with Qatar’s Al Sadd.
It was their shared experiences in domestic football that made the team so strong, believes Bagheri.
“In those days none of the players played overseas, so we didn’t have so much experience,” he says. “But we were united, we had very good players technically but also the behaviour and character of the players was good, we enjoyed being together.
“On top of that, we had a very good coach who was able to make the team united. We had a lot of elements that made us special. That meant we were able to have a good team and we were able to qualify for the World Cup in France.
“Khodadad Azizi was selected as the best player of the Asian Cup, Ali Daei became a big name and football fever in Iran grew more and more after that tournament and the game got more attention.”
The power and ability of Iran’s 1996 vintage was never on display more than in the astonishing 6-2 demolition of Korea Republic in Dubai in the quarterfinals, with Daei’s goal scoring leading the Iranians into the semifinals.
Iran had trailed 2-1 at half time but Daei struck four times – including one that would later be judged among the best goals of the tournament – in the second half to steer Team Melli to a famous victory.
“They were a strong team and nobody expected us to get that kind of result,” says Bagheri.
“We were losing 2-1 at the end of the first half, so we had no choice but to attack because it was the knockout stage and we had to win the game.
“When we went back out on the pitch, we were so determined to do something. We didn’t expect such a result but we had a lot of motivation and this was the best match for me at that tournament.”
As Bagheri states, Iran did manage to put the disappointment of missing out on the Asian title behind them two years later by qualifying for the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1978.
But it is no secret that successive Iran teams have fallen short of the standard set by that golden generation, even though the nation qualified for the finals of the FIFA World Cup again in 2006.
Now, though, Bagheri is putting his experience to good use by helping the country’s challenge for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup after being asked to work with the squad by current coach Afshin Ghotbi.
Bagheri retired at the end of November, finishing a career that spanned 18 years and which saw him represent Iran at three AFC Asian Cups and a FIFA World Cup, a record that makes him the perfect candidate to fill the mentor’s role he currently holds.
“I’ve no specific position in the team,” says the former Persepolis, Arminia Bielefeld and Charlton Athletic midfielder.
Call for help
“Afshin asked me to join the team and I’m training with the players. I’m not doing anything unless they ask me and if they ask me, I’m ready to help them. If they want me to come to any meetings, I will go and I will help them but I don’t have any specific position, I just came because they asked me.
“I’ve been away from football since a month ago and I was just resting and then suddenly I was called in to help the national team. I’m not unfit but I’m not thinking about playing now. I’m just hoping the national team can do well at the Asian Cup.
“The team is made up mainly of young players, although there are experienced players in the team as well, but the real power should be shown on the pitch. No matter what I say, the team has to show its best performance on the pitch.
“I hope when we come back on January 6 all the players come with a lot of confidence and believe they can do it. Nothing is impossible and I hope that they have such a feeling and are determined. It’s not impossible.”