The Iran soccer federation launched in Persia in 1920, but it did not reach the biggest stage until the 1978 World Cup.

One year later the Iranian Revolution took place and Iranian soccer regressed under the new regime.

Nevertheless, at its nucleus, the depths of Iran’s national team are rooted in the Persian Kingdom – not the Islamic regime that has ruled the country since 1979.

Rooted in Persia

In 1926, during the Pahlavi Royal House founded by Reza Shah, the Imperial state of Persia created its first national team dubbed ‘Tehran XI’ – an amalgamation of players from two prototypical soccer clubs: Tehran FC and Armenian SC.

The latter, a predecessor of ‘Ararat Tehran’ – an Iranian club that prerequires players to have an Armenian bloodline. Its name, ‘Ararat,’ refers to the Biblical Mountain where Noah’s ark arrived.

Between 1926 – 1929, Persia’s Tehran XI competed in seven matches against the Soviet Union, resulting with an under-par record of 0-1-6.

In 1935, Reza Shah steered from Persia’s moniker and declared the ‘land of Aryans’ as Iran.

After WWII, Iran’s federation became a member of FIFA in 1948.

However, since international soccer halted due to a global cataclysm, an entire generation of Iranians failed to compete in major tournaments.

Therefore, from 1950 – 1970, the Kingdom of Iran did not enter World Cup qualifications. However, that era gave rise to neophytes who discovered their latent talent. Soon enough, the Kingdom of Iran became three-time champions.

Iranian Cheetahs – 3x Asian Champions

From 1968 – 1976, the U.S.-backed Iran boasts three AFC Asian Cup Championships. Their team dubbed the ‘Iranian Cheetahs’ – an homage to the last vestige of endangered species. During that three-peat, the Cheetahs were led by Iranian French midfielder Parviz Ghelichkhani.

However, in 1977, after 14 goals and 66 appearances, Parviz was forced by Iran’s monarchy to retire from international duty for political reasons.

This political targeted saw Parviz imprisoned for two months in 1972 and was ultimately excluded from World Cup 1978 in Argentina.

Nevertheless, Parviz displayed stellar performances, attracting the attention of the San Jose Earthquakes. In 1978, he made his swan song with 16 appearances for the Bay Area outfit, donning his iconic No. 5 jersey for The Goonies.

Despite his absence at Argentina 1978, Parviz passed the torch to a trio: the late goalkeeper Nasser Hejazi, Persepolis winger Ali Parvin, and vaunted No. 10 from ‘Crown FC’ – Hassan Rowshan. Together, Iran was determined to make a name for themselves on soccer’s grand stage.

World Cup 1978

In World Cup 1978, Iran donned Adidas kits and sported kangaroo leather ‘Copa Mundial’ cleats. Armed with the finest gear, the ‘Cheetahs’ drew tough opposition in their group: the Netherlands, Scotland, and Peru.

On matchday one, Rob Rensenbrink’s hat trick lifted the Dutch to a 3-0 shutout, but Team Melli did not lose their impetus. The Cheetahs embarked upon a match against a formidable Scotland.

Unfortunately, in that match, Iranian Armenian defender, Andranik Eskandarian, conceded his own goal in the penultimate minutes of the first half. Nevertheless, Iran retaliated in the 61st minute when a midfielder, the late Iraj Danaeifard, equalized 1-1.

After the game ended in a draw, the ecstatic Iranian Kingdom of soccer fanatics were immersed with buoyant spirits that their national team had earned their first goal in a World Cup, not to mention their first Group stage point.

As a result, Iranian players became overconfident. All signs pointed toward matchday three – the winner would secure an advancement into the next round. Unfortunately, Iran underestimated their opponent, a tactical and technical Peru.

Iran knew that the game against Peru was a ‘must-win’ situation. Therefore, they entered the match with a relentless attack that exposed their defense. As a result, Peru capitalizes on breakaways and dead balls, proving the victor, 4-1. But Team Melli stepped off the pitch at Mario Kempes Stadium in Córdoba, knowing they’d return to an elated fanbase in Iran.

Iranian players in American Soccer

In 1978, the NASL – the now defunct American Soccer League – was equivalent to the MLS, and the New York Cosmos were its highest-profile team. Ultimately, it worked out for Andy Eskandarian. Despite conceding an ‘own goal’ against Scotland and being benched against Peru, the defender was signed by the Cosmos.

Further, from 2003 – 2010, his New Jersey-born son Alecko Eskandarian, scored thirty goals in 125 appearances across five MLS teams. A tenure that commenced with DC United and concluded with LA Galaxy. The University of Virginia alum currently works in MLS Player Development.

Ultimately, the Iranian French Parviz Ghelichkhani and the Iranian Armenian Andy Eskandarian left their bi-coastal mark on American soccer. The former retired in San Jose, while the latter played center-back in 142 appearances for New York.

Iran’s contribution to Asian soccer

In the 1970s, Iranian soccer displayed signs of a promising future. Players from the team were evolving their technical abilities. But, like many nations, Iranian players became masters of rudiments by emulating Johan Cruyff’s ‘Total Football’ and Italy’s ‘Door-Bolt’ defense.

From 1972-1979, federation President Kambiz Atabay led Iran’s national team as the winner of the 1974 Asian Games and 1976 Asian Cup. Further, Iran qualified for the 1976 Olympics and the 1978 World Cup under his watch. Not to mention Kambiz served as an AFC President throughout his oeuvre. Historically, his tenure has been the most successful of Iranian federation Presidents.

Unfortunately, Kambiz Atabay’s tenure ended on Feb. 17th, 1979 – six days after the Shah’s dethronement. As a result, Iranian soccer toppled. Despite placing third at the 1980 Asian Cup, Iran withdrew from World Cup Spain in 1982. Further, Iran placed fourth in the 1984 edition of the Asian Cup. However, they were suspended from World Cup Mexico 1986 due to the war with Iraq.

A Quest of Redemption

Under the US-backed Iran Kingdom, one can only wistfully wonder how much Iranian soccer could have evolved.

Throughout the 1980s, the absence of two World Cups stifled the progress of the 1970s. Yet, especially after showing promise in their 1978 debut, it points out that Iran could have been ahead of their current FIFA rank, 20.

In 2022, Carlos Queiroz’s Iran has the potential to stun Group B. But unfortunately, his team is under the shadow of political unrest that dominates international news.

Should Iran succeed in Qatar and advance into the knockout stage, it could add fuel to the fire of protests.

Photo Credit: IMAGO / Horstmüller