South Korea, Japan to take on Brazil; Iran slow off the mark 


SEOUL (South Korea) — While Japan and South Korea will start fine-tuning for the World Cup with high-profile warm-ups against Brazil next month, there are concerns in Iran that Asia’s top-ranked team has been slow off the mark with its preparations.

Iran is in Group B with England and the United States at the World Cup, which kicks off on November 21 in Qatar. But while there have been reports of a June friendly with New Zealand and talk of a potential match with Canada, so far Iran hasn’t confirmed its warm-up commitments.

“There appears to be no concrete plan,” Afshin Ghotbi, head coach of Iran’s national team from 2009-11, told The Associated Press. “Time is of the essence and preparation is vital to the success of Iran.

“Most teams have already arranged matches and many good opponents are not available anymore. Iran needs to urgently set up appropriate fixtures in the build-up to the World Cup.”

There has been criticism within Iran about the lack of movement so far, with a Tehran Times editorial last month headlined: “Iran wastes golden chance as always.” The editorial hoped for greater urgency when the soccer federation meets to choose a new president on May 10.

Interim president Mirshad Majedi has said no games will be announced until details are finalized.

As the country is under international sanctions, attracting teams to Tehran or travelling overseas can be more complex for Iran than its Asian rivals.

Ghotbi wants to see Iranian players such as Medhi Taremi at FC Porto and Sardar Azmoun, with Bayer Leverkusen of Germany, given every chance possible to succeed in Qatar.

Iran, No. 21 in the FIFA rankings and currently coached by Dragan Skocic, has qualified for five previous World Cups but has never progressed past the first round.

“I faced many of these challenges during my tenure, as did those who came before and after me,” Ghotbi said. “It is frustrating as Iran has a golden generation of players and if they have the best support and preparation, then they can reach their true potential on the world stage.”

Carlos Queiroz, Ghotbi’s successor as head coach, complained about the quality of opposition that Iran faced leading up to the 2018 World Cup, when it prepared with games against Turkey, Lithuania, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.

“If you copy the preparations of the last four World Cups, you don’t go anywhere. It’s a simple conclusion,” Queiroz said in 2017. At the same time, seven Iranian players took to social media to ask that the country emulate South Korea when it came to preparations.

This time around, South Korea, drawn in Group H along with Portugal, Uruguay and Ghana, will take on Brazil in Seoul on June 2 and then meet Chile four days later and Paraguay on June 10.

Japan will start preparations for Group E — containing Germany, Spain and either Costa Rica or New Zealand — by taking on Brazil and Paraguay in the first week of June.

Saudi Arabia has also qualified from Asia and Qatar gets an automatic spot in the tournament as host. Australia and the United Arab Emirates will meet in an Asian playoff for the right to take on the fifth-place team from South America for another place in Qatar.

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