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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Iran – A Lesson in Soccernomics

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Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at Iran, one of the strongest teams in Asia, who have drawn a tough group that includes Nigeria, Argentina, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The Iranian team will play their first match against Nigeria on June 15th.

Iran is a very unique nation when it comes to soccer.  They are a large (population of over 76 million people) wealthy country (primarily because of large amounts of oil), with a history of success in Asia (they have won the Asian Football Confederation’s Asian Cup 3 times, and placed 3rd another 3 times).  Iran also has a very experienced coach, in the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, whose last World Cup coaching job saw him lead his native Portugal into the round of 16 at South Africa in 2010, where they lost only 1-0 to eventual winners Spain.  In spite of all of these positive factors, however, Iran heads into the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as huge underdogs.  Queiroz has even admitted to fifa.com that qualification for the round of 16 seems like “an unrealistic dream.” 

In their 2009 book Soccernomics, Simon Kuper ( a renowned soccer journalist) and Stefan Syzmanski (an international economist) used insights and analogies from economics, statistics, psychology, and business, to explain the 3 main factors that can be used to predict a country’s chances of success in international soccer.  These factors are:

  1. Population (how large the country is)
  2. Gross Domestic Produce (GDP; or how strong the country’s economy is)
  3. Soccer experience (how long the country has played the game and how large their national professional league is)

The authors of Soccernomics were able to use these factors to explain why countries like Brazil and Germany win so often, and conversely, why England loses more often than not.  Using these same metrics on Iran might lead believers of Soccernomics to conclude that the country could be poised to become one of the world’s next soccer superpowers.  After all, Iran has a large population, they are a wealthy country, and they have a lot of soccer experience, having begun playing international matches as early as 1941.  The authors of the book themselves predicted Iraq and Turkey (two countries that neighbor Iran, and like Iran have large populations and abundant natural resources) to become future World Cup winners. 

Unfortunately, due to recent economic sanctions placed against the country, Iran presently does not have access to the global banking system, meaning their sports teams (including their soccer team) do not have access to adequate funding required for training and other preparation.  As recently as September of 2013, Iran had to cancel a scheduled training camp in Portugal due to lack of funds.  The Iranian professional league has also suffered in recent years, both from lack of money and corruption, and as a result several of Iran’s top players frequently travel to Euorpe to play professionally there.   Here are some other notable quotes from Queiroz that were recently made to fifa.com about Iran’s soccer problems:

  • “We lost six months. I hope we will be able to find a solution.” (referring to the canceled camp in Portugal)
  • “In a conservative society like Iran, it is not easy to talk about reform and change of habits. It is not easy in Iran, not easy in other parts of the world.” (referring to the skepticism he received from critics, when trying to bring internationally-based players into the Iranian team)
  • “We cannot be competitive without international experience. The only thing here similar to professional football is that at the end of the month, players get their salary.” (referring to the lack of standards in Iran’s professional league)
  • “With its potential, imagine what Iran could achieve if it had the resources of Qatar.” (referring to the lack of funding) 

Looking at this information through the lens of Soccernomics, it seems as though the Iranian team cannot reach its true potential until their aforementioned problems with funding and corruption are resolved.  The coach, and the team, however, have remained positive and optimistic about the future, despite their recent set-backs.  “My commitment to Iranians is to make them happy,” Queiroz has said. “This is our World Cup, this is our time to tell the world that Iran is a football country.”  Can the Iranians rise above their underdog status and achieve their “unrealistic dream” in Brazil?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.  

 

 

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