Iran aren't a bad side. They won five of eight matches in the final round of their Asian World Cup qualifiers to finish first in their group, make the tournament, and prove themselves to be at least one of the best teams in a bad confederation.
Though they don't have much in the way of recognizable names on the roster, captain Javad Nekounam is an all-action midfielder who defends and can score goals in the middle of the pitch, and Reza "Gucci" Ghoochannejhad is a legitimate threat in front of goal. Carlos Queiroz is probably the biggest name on the team sheet, because the Portuguese manager has been all over. He managed the United Arab Emirates, Portugal, and South Africa before Iran, and held posts at clubs like Sporting CP, Real Madrid, and Manchester United. If nothing else, Queiroz is a pragmatic manager. His teams are always defensively sound, and he's improved Team Melli through recruiting dual-nationality players, like the Holland-born Gucci. In the final round of qualifying, they only conceded twice in eight matches.
The Iranians share Group F with Argentina, Bosnia, and Nigeria, and though they're the weakest team of the bunch, they still probably had a puncher's chance of jumping Nigeria or World Cup debutantes Bosnia for second place in the group and a spot in the knockout rounds of the tournament.
But for a while, Iran couldn't get a game. After qualifying for the World Cup nearly a year ago, Team Melli struggled to find friendlies. They've struggled to attract other national teams to the country for tune-ups, and a September foray to Portugal for training camp and a friendly against Ghana was canceled because Iran just didn't have the money.
If the team doesn't play, the players can't mesh. To remedy this, Iran squeezed five friendlies into the month leading up to the World Cup, when most countries are only playing three. Team Melli will be making decisions about their squad and tactics while other teams iron out the last kinks before Brazil. That's the sort of thing that leaves you with tired players, if not injured ones.
For Team Melli to shock the world this summer and advance past Group F, they probably need everything to go right in their preparation to and through the World Cup, and they probably need to catch a couple of breaks once the matches start. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like that'll happen in Iran's fourth trip to the World Cup.
Goalkeepers: Daniel Davari (Eintracht Braunschweig), Rahman Ahmadi (Sepahan Isfahan), Alireza Haqiqi (Sporting da Covilha)
Defenders: Hossein Mahini (Persepolis), Jalal Hosseini (Persepolis), Amir Hossein Sadeqi (Esteghlal), Hashem Beykzadeh (Esteghlal), Mehrdad Pouladi (Persepolis), Ahmad Alenemeh (Naft Tehran), Pejman Montazeri (Umm Salal SC),Steven Beitashour (Vancouver Whitecaps), Mohammad Reza Khanzadeh (Zob Ahan Isfahan)
Midfielders: Javad Nekounam (Kuwait SC), Reza Haghighi (Persepolis), Andranik Teymourian (Esteghlal), Ghasem Hadadifar (Zob Ahan Isfahan), Bakhtiar Rahmani (Foolad), Ehsan Hajsafi (Sepahan Isfahan)
Forwards: Reza Ghoochannejhad (Charlton Athletic), Khosrow Heidari (Esteghlal), Karim Ansarifard (Tractor Sazi), Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC), Masoud Shojaei (UD Las Palmas), Ashkan Dejagah (Fulham)
FIFA World Ranking
Players to Watch
Javad Nekounam, Central Midfielder
With 136 appearances, Iran's longtime captain is the second most-capped player ever for his country. The 33-year-old has also scored 37 goals in that span, more than all but three Iranians. What makes "Neku" special is how active he is; he's a defensive midfielder, but creates chances from deep, shoots from long-range, and even crashes into the box to get on the end of crosses. If Nekounam can excel in the center of the park, Iran could make some noise.
Reza Ghoochannejhad, Forward
Gucci is fucking fun. He's one of those players whose confidence outpaces his talent, but he's also a worm, with the seemingly innate ability to find holes and crannies in front of goal to exploit and score. Gucci's been on a tear for his country, and he scored in each of Team Melli's final, decisive three World Cup qualifying matches. Like many forwards in his mold, win or lose, Gucci will probably get his at the World Cup.
Group F Fixtures
All times Eastern
June 16, 3 p.m.: Iran vs. Nigeria at Arena da Baixada
June 21, 6 p.m.: Argentina vs. Iran at Estádio Mineirao
June 25, noon: Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iran at Arena Fonte Nova
Complete Group F Previews
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty