Amir Qalenoei will embark on a new chapter of his career when he sits on Iran’s bench in a friendly against Russia at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on March 23.
Months of speculations surrounding the Iranian job – following the departure of Portuguese Carlos Queiroz after the World Cup group exit last November – came to an end on Sunday as the 59-year-old left Persian Gulf Pro League outfit Golgohar Sirjan for the new job.
Iran’s first domestic coach in more than a decade, Qalenoei is back in the role after 16 years, having seen his previous spell end after just over 12 months in charge.
The most decorated manager in the history of the Iranian top-flight with five titles, Qalenoei was quite clearly not the Iranian Football Federation’s first choice for Team Melli’s dugout as he was given the job only after Mehdi Taj, the chairman of the federation, failed to extend Queiroz’s stay after the World Cup and negotiations with former Qatar boss Felix Sanchez collapsed last week over the length of the contract.
All that left the country’s football governing body with no option but to settle for a manager whose last major honor in the Iranian football came in 2011, when he led Sepahan to the league crown.
However, Qalenoei, who had the backing of his fellow Iranian counterparts for the role in recent weeks, will be out there to prove a point.
He has always felt hard done by since he was axed following a shootout defeat against South Korea at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, lamenting lack of proper time at the job, and the next edition of the Asian flagship international competition in Qatar will come as a perfect opportunity for redemption for him.
Still, some might argue that the veteran will have to come up against numerous challenges in steering Iran in its quest to a first continental crown in 48 years.
The Asian Cup will kick off in less than 10 months and Qalenoei, whose current contract runs until the end of the tournament in Qatar, will have to decide if he wants to begin a rebuild project or stick with more or less the same squad that was the oldest among the 32 teams at the World Cup.
Impressive performances by Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea, and Australia at the World Cup indicate that Qalenoei’s men will hardly be the favorite to lift the Asian trophy next January as the Saudis were the only team to beat eventual champion Argentina while the other three made it to the knockout phase, not to mention Qatar, with Queiroz as the new manager, will fancy its chances to retain the title on home soil.
The biggest question facing Qalenoei’s reign, however, will be how he will get certain players within the squad on board.
Despite an emphatic run at the World Cup qualifiers, ex-head coach Dragan Skocic was shown the exit door in September for what was believed to be, in part, his lack of control over the dressing room and discontent among senior players in the team, namely talismanic Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, as well as Iranian skippers Ehsan Hajsafi and Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
The majority of the Iranian internationals had been working under a high-profile tactician in Queiroz for the best part of the last nine years – being given their international debuts by the Portuguese – and might well see Qalenoei’s appointment as a step backward for the Iranian football.
That goes without saying that a disappointing World Cup campaign, coupled with issues on and off the pitch amid the unrest in the country, led to national team players facing clear disaffection among considerable amount of the fans and the federation hopes Qalenoei will be the man to restore the full support of the Iranians all over the world.
Qalenoei may have years of working at the highest level of the Iranian club football on his back but the new era at the national team surely means walking into an unknown territory for him.