x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Iran's Nekounam hopes Asian title will ease World Cup pain

The captain says winning the Asian Cup will go some way to making up for Iran's failure to qualify for the World Cup in South Africa.

Javad Nekounam, right, the Iran captain, is hoping to lead his country to their fourth continental title on January 29.
Javad Nekounam, right, the Iran captain, is hoping to lead his country to their fourth continental title on January 29.

If you were to ask Javad Nekounam, the captain of the Iran national team, what would make up for missing out on the 2010 World Cup the answer would probably be "nothing".

But it is fair to say that lifting the 2011 Asian Cup in Doha on January 29 would go some way to easing the pain.

Iran ruled the Asian roost from 1968 to 1976 but are still searching for a fourth title.

Nekounam has helped his team qualify from a Group D that features the UAE, who they play tonight, the defending champions Iraq and North Korea and, if they can go on to take the title, he will confirm his status as one of Asia's top players and reaffirm Iran's position as a continental powerhouse.

As a defensive midfielder for Osasuna, one of Spain's less fashionable clubs, Nekounam may not receive the kind of media attention lavished on the likes of Park Ji-sung or Keisuke Honda, but the 30-year-old has been a key player for the Primera Liga team since 2006.

He is even more important for Iran. Nekounam is the team's talisman and took the failure to qualify for South Africa personally.

"I couldn't watch any of the Asian teams play at the World Cup," he said. "It was just too painful. It was incredibly sad for the country when the team didn't qualify for the World Cup and we hope that we can get good results at the Asian Cup.

"We hope to change the minds of the Iranian people about the national team, the team is very important for the people."

The player, who speaks Spanish and understands English, claims that "Team Melli" have progressed since the World Cup setback.

"There have been so many changes in our team. Some players have left because they have become old, while some younger players have established themselves in the team," he said.

And he maintained that Iran are one of the best teams in Asia and among the favourites to win the tournament.

The former Sharjah and Al Wahda midfielder is now looking ahead to the quarter-finals. Iran have faced South Korea at that stage at every tournament since 1996 with honours currently even.

"At the last four Asian Cups, we have met [South] Korea. We win one then they win one. We are two of the best Asian teams and when we play, it is a beautiful match every time and an important match. It wouldn't be the Asian Cup without it."

In contrast to the recent past, this Iran squad - led by Afshin Ghotbi, who has already announced that he will step down as the coach after the competition ends to take charge at Japanese J-League club Shimizu S-Pulse - is light on European experience.

Only Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei, his Osasuna teammate, are currently playing outside Asia, but the captain believes that the tournament will change all this.

"Before we had many players in Europe as we went to the World Cups in 1998 and 2006. That is a chance for players around the world to demonstrate their ability," said Nekounam. "If Iran had qualified for 2010, some of the players from this team would be now playing in Europe. You will see that after the Asian Cup some of our players will go to Europe ... the quality of Iranian players is better than others in Asia."