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Carlos Queiroz Finds Enemies On All Sides With Iran

Tuesday 28th March 2017
As a rule, all successful football managers do one thing. They follow the money. The Premier and Chinese Super Leagues prove that. Of course, there is an exception to every rule. In this case, it's Carlos Queiroz.

The Portuguese, actually born in Mozambique, has managed on four continents, from Real Madrid to NY/NJ Metro Stars, from Portugal to Bafana Bafana, taking charge of both clubs and countries. Essentially, he's Bob Bradley with connections. Like Bradley, Queiroz has embraced vastly diverse challenges. At the moment, he is in his sixth year with the Iranian national team. I would have written "enjoying his sixth year," but his recently unaccepted resignation would suggest that isn't always the case. Poor funding coupled with interference from a powerful rival have hindered his progress but also rendered his success all the more impressive.
Iran command Group A in AFC World Cup qualifying. Queiroz has Team Melli closing in on successive World Cup appearances for the first time in its history. A win in its second qualifying match this international window would make a berth in Russia almost a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, a legendary manager who has followed the money stands in his way.

Marcelo Lippi is the last coach to lead Italy to World Cup glory. He also guided Juventus to five Scudettos and one Champions League crown in four finals trips around the turn of the millennium. In the middle of that run, the quick Silver Fox jumped over the Old Lady for a single season, winning another Serie A title with Inter. After his disastrous second stint with the Azzurri in South Africa, he went to China. In three seasons leading Guangzhou Evergrande, Lippi returned to winning ways with three league titles, a Chinese FA Cup, and the Asian Champions League.
Although the CSL's top club wished to extend his contract, an exhausted Lippi temporarily accepted a position as Director of Football, then resigned just months later. Retirement isn't for everyone, however. When Evergrande elected to extend his successor, Luiz Felipe Scolari's, contract, the refreshed sixty-eight-year-old accepted the Chinese FA's offer to manage the national team in 2016.

Lippi may have a Midas touch, but alchemy on a global scale requires time. China are fifth in Group A, four points from third, with a win and two draws in six matches. The Italian's side has scored only three goals while conceding six. Its lone win, however, came Thursday. The Dragons surprised South Korea, keeping a clean sheet in a 1-0 victory.

With progress finally realized, the next ingredient is momentum. To reach third place, which would pit Lippi's squad against its Group B counterpart for an opportunity to meet CONCACAF's fourth-placed country with a World Cup spot on the line, China cannot afford to drop any points in its four remaining matches. Even in a hostile environment such as Tehran's Azadi Stadium, the Dragons must continue to win. Lippi knows this.
So does Queiroz. The Portuguese understands his opponent's powers.

Lippi has been everywhere in football and he will make China a stronger and more intelligent team...When I was in Japan [coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight], people always asked when China would wake up and now that is happening.

Today's clash presents a rare occasion where two world class managers will knock heads outside the CSL, Premier League, or La Liga. What's more, their styles and circumstances contrast, making their confrontation all the more enticing.

Lippi embodies catenaccio. Queiroz's sides are defensively sound but he is more aggressive. Whereas the Italian has a talent pool in the billions from which to draw, complete autonomy, and all the financial resources he desires from the well-heeled Chinese FA, the Portuguese has little money, must deal with religious issues, harsh political sanctions, and contend with Iranian clubs reluctant to release players to optional training camps.

Ramadan, the Holy month when Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours, often interferes with World and Asian Cup qualifying, occasionally with play in the tournament itself. If players do not eat or drink, they cannot perform to their best. Queiroz accepts the situation.

The Iranian Muslim players have a lot of experience to deal with their religious obligations and sport. During qualifying, we sometimes faced the same cultural issue, so there is a long history and that has helped produce knowledge. Today, playing at this level, it is not an issue.

Except it is an issue. The next international break, from 5 June through 13th, coincides with Ramadan. Iran have just one qualifier but it is a difficult match, hosting current third-place nation Uzbekistan. Winning against China will afford Iran some breathing room entering a contest where Queiroz knows his side will not be one hundred percent. A draw or loss will ratchet up pressure.
Meanwhile, he must hope Branko Ivanković doesn't attempt to undermine him again. The Croatian manages Iran's top club, Persepolis. He was national boss from 2002-06. Ivanković has exerted his influence on several occasions, complaining Queiroz's training camps inhibit Persepolis' ability to contend in the Asian Champions League. He has also put himself forward as a replacement for the Portuguese.

Several times, Queiroz has resigned when Ivanković's meddling has influenced FFIRI. The last occasion was in January. With many considering his move a boy crying wolf, he had pen virtually in hand to sign for a second stint with South Africa before the federation capitulated, restoring his program requirements. While Ivanković may be backed by an influential club owner, Queiroz is easily Iran's most successful national coach. As such, he is incredibly popular with fans, whose support is FFIRI's main revenue source.

Still, Queiroz will not be able to play the resignation card many more times, if at all. Should he guide Team Melli back to the World Cup, then advance them to the knockout rounds for the first time, it may no longer be necessary. With eleven Iranians now playing in European leagues, led by FC Rostov striker Sardar Azmoun, such progress is possible but the next step is a doozy: dealing with Marcello Lippi.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.


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