Iran secured their spot in the AFC Asian Cup™ semi-finals for the second consecutive tournament with a remarkable 2-1 win against Japan on Saturday.
In an interview with the-AFC.com, Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh highlighted how Team Melli’s defeat at the same stage in the 2019 Asian Cup will fuel their determination against their semi-final rivals Qatar.
When Alireza Jahanbakhsh converted a penalty in injury time against title-contenders Japan, beating Zion Suzuki’s outstretched arms, jubilation erupted throughout the Education City Stadium. Iran’s historic victory over Japan marked the first time they had ever defeated them in the AFC Asian Cup.
The 2-1 triumph over the four-time champions was a moment of celebration for Iranians worldwide. It symbolized a significant step forward for Team Melli, bringing them closer to their long-awaited success after Japan had dashed their hopes five years earlier in the United Arab Emirates.
Iran clinched the AFC Asian Cup title in 1976, marking the third consecutive triumph for a nation that was once a dominant force in Asian football. Now, they aim to end nearly fifty years of frustration by securing another tournament victory.
To achieve this goal, the team led by coach Amir Ghalenoi must address their nation’s historical challenges in the latter stages of the competition and break free from a longstanding pattern of underperformance.
Can Iran finally make it to the Asian Cup final after decades?!
“As a country, football is always alive in Iran,” Jahanbakhsh tells the-AFC.com.
“It’s the first sport in the country, there’s always expectations. There’s always pressure. That’s always been there, for different generations all the way through to us.
“But thankfully I think the generation we have right now is a mix of great players individually and great players with good experience as well, and this mix of these two helps us to combine to have a good performance.
“From the experience we have from 2019 in the UAE we know you’re not there until you’re there. We know how important this game is in the semis. This generation have big dreams. We want to show that we’re the best generation in Iranian football. This is the time.”
Despite their historic successes, Iran has faced AFC Asian Cup heartbreak on numerous occasions. The country reached the semi-finals in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2004, and 2019, with each instance resulting in defeat.
In the most recent tournament, Japan took advantage of a late collapse to hand Carlos Queiroz’s team a 3-0 loss. With seven players from that match in Al Ain, including Jahanbakhsh, starting in Saturday’s game, overcoming that painful defeat was a cathartic experience.
Therefore, Wednesday’s semi-final encounter with Qatar holds even greater significance for a group of players striving to cement their places among Iranian football legends.
Jahanbakhsh talks of Iran overcoming Asian Cup heartbreak
“In the World Cup it’s always been the expectation that we make it through from the group stage, but at the Asian Cup it’s always been different,” says Jahanbakhsh. “The Iranian fans look forward to us to winning prizes with the national team.
“We know how big the pressure is, we know how big the expectation is, but at the same time we are cool in the head, big in the heart and when it comes to our pride, we’re always there and we fight for our country and our people.
“And We showed against Japan that we did that very well. We played with our hearts and we’ll make sure we do that in the next games to finish the tournament in the best way possible.”
Despite the confidence boost from the win, Jahanbakhsh and his teammates are well aware of the challenge awaiting Ghalenoi’s team as they prepare to face a Qatar side led by the in-form Akram Afif, playing in front of their own fans.
“Being part of the semi-finals is a big thing,” he says. “The run we’ve had over the last games has had some ups and downs. We started the tournament really well (with a 4-1 win over Palestine).
“Against Hong Kong wasn’t our best performance but against the UAE and Syria we became better, and our top performance was against Japan. That gives us extra confidence that we can do big things in this tournament and achieve our dreams.”