CANBERRA, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Emotions are always high when Iran and Iraq meet on the football pitch. The political history between the two Middle Eastern neighbours always provides both teams with added motivation.
On Friday, the rivals will clash in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup in Canberra and the stakes could not be higher but bragging rights are only part of the equation.
The Iraq coach Radhi Shenaishil has warned his players to forget about who they’re playing, telling them that cool heads are needed with the bigger carrot of a semi-final against South Korea in Sydney awaiting the winner.
”There’s history between the two teams.“ he said. ”(But) I want to see a quality match. We are in the quarter-finals and we want to give the right impression of football in Asia.
“Both Iran and Iraq will be telling their players to have a quality game and forget their emotions. On the day, the players are there to do their duty.”
Both teams go into the match full of confidence and harbouring greater ambitions of winning the title.
Iraq defied the odds and the troubles in their war-torn homeland to win the 2007 Asian Cup and are hoping to repeat the fairytale run this time.
They were expected to struggle in the pool stage but beat Jordan and Palestine and lost narrowly to Japan to finish runner-up in Group D.
Iraq’s driving force remains Younis Mahmoud, their talismanic striker who scored the winner in the 2007 Asian Cup final against Saudi Arabia.
Mahmoud missed a penalty when Iran beat Iraq 1-0 in a warm-up played in Wollongong a week before the Asian Cup started and Shenaishil said he was expecting another tight battle.
“It’s not going to be an easy match between the two teams but hopefully we can produce something,” he said.
“They are a strong team. We’ve played them previously in a friendly. It’s good to play against a strong team before competitions, to see your advantages and disadvantages.”
Iran have won the Asian Cup three times but not since 1976. It has been a long and frustrating run for Team Melli but things are starting to fall into place.
They are currently the highest ranked team in Asia and sailed through the pool phase without giving up a goal, although they needed a stoppage-time winner to beat United Arab Emirates to ensure they finished top of Group C.
“This is exactly where everything starts,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said.
”We played against them in a friendly before the tournament started and I saw them play against Jordon and Japan.
“We are sure that we don’t underestimate the Iraqi team. They are a good team.”
The heartbeat of Iran’s team is veteran captain Javad Nekounam, who will reach a special milestone against Iraq.
Nekounam will become the first Iranian to make 150 international appearances, surpassing the previous record of 149 caps held by Ali Daei, the world record holder for international goals.
But, like all the players on both teams, the 34-year-old midfielder’s only real goal is to win the match.
“I have never thought about any records throughout my career, from the very first day when I was invited to play for the national team until now,” he said.
“I have the same desire and motivation. I have never thought about it and tomorrow’s game is no different.” (Writing by Julian Linden)