9 October 2012, Azadi Stadium, Tehran [UPDATE: Match cancelled - more info here]
The wait is almost over. On Tuesday 9 October, reigning Unofficial Football World Champions North Korea will play Iran in what has been labelled (by us) the UFWC ‘megaclash’. It’s exactly the type of fixture the UFWC was set up to celebrate. This is a friendly match between two of the least-known teams in football. Ordinarily, it would have been ignored by pretty much everyone outside of the two competing nations. But under UFWC rules this is a cup final, a winner-takes-all battle royale, with the victorious nation able to claim to be (unofficially) the very best in the world.
Even for those football fans who have not been following the UFWC, the words ‘Iran vs North Korea’ must generate a frisson of excitement. This is a clash between two of the ‘most negatively rated’ nations in the world, according to a recent BBC poll. They are, lest we forget, two-thirds of George W Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. But if it is possible to set aside political, security and other issues and concentrate solely on football, this looks like being a fascinating game between two sides that the majority of fans know very little about.
UFWC fans, of course, do know a fair bit about North Korea (some say Korea DPR). The Chollima have been unofficial champions since beating Japan last November, and are now unbeaten in nine UFWC title matches. Earlier this year, they ploughed a successful path through the AFC Challenge Cup tournament in Nepal, successfully retaining that trophy and the UFWC title. Most recently, in September, they travelled to Surabaya to comfortably beat Indonesia 2-0. It’s been an impressive showing from coach Yun Jong Su and his players, including the likes of Pak Nam Chol, Ri Kwang Chon and Jong Il Gwang. The successful run has seen the team soar 30 places up the FIFA rankings, from 111th to 81st (and up to 23rd in the UFWC rankings).
What do we know about Iran? Well, they’re ranked higher than North Korea by FIFA, but they’re not in good form. They lost 1-0 to Lebanon last month, and have only won once in eight attempts this year. To be fair, they drew five of those games, so North Korea may not find them easy to beat. Iran have only played in one previous UFWC title match – a 2-1 defeat to France way back in 1978.
The Persian Stars, or Team Melli, are coached by Carlos Queiroz, the respected former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, who took over in April 2011. Queiroz has faced some criticism for his lack of impact on the struggling Iranian team. Former Persian Stars manager Heshmat Mohajerani has said that questions need to be asked about the team’s unsatisfactory performances. ‘No one can deny the ability of this coach,’ he said, ‘however, he still needs to be more wary and vigilant in some of his decision making.’
The captain is midfielder Javad Nekounam, who played in Spain for Osasuna before returning to Iran this summer. Nekounam was one of seven Iranian players who wore green armbands during a World Cup qualifier in 2009 in protest against his country’s elections, and was subsequently ‘retired’ by the Iranian FA. He has since been restored to the team. Nekounam signed for top Tehran club Esteghlal in July for a reported fee of $9 million, making him the most expensive Iranian footballer ever. Another Iranian midfielder, Masoud Shojaei, still plays for Osasuna. Other players to watch include 22-year-old striker Karim Ansarifard, and the veteran midfielder Ali Karimi. However, a reported rift between Karimi and Queiroz may mean he is left out.
Iran and North Korea have played eight times in the last ten years, and Iran have won seven of those meetings, the other being a draw. That draw, however, was a vital one, ensuring that North Korea qualified for World Cup 2010 ahead of Iran. Two years on, Iran will be looking to end North Korea’s UFWC reign, but recent form suggests the latter have to be favourites to win. Watch this space and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.