DOHA, January 10 – Iran and holders Iraq clash on Tuesday in one of the biggest ties of the Asian Cup group stage, with both coaches admitting the match between the arch rivals and neighbours has extra significance.Games between the two countries, which fought a war from 1980 to 1988, are always fierce.
"It’s maybe the toughest of all the opening matches. It’s a derby so we know that it’s very important," said Iraq’s experienced German coach Wolfgang Sidka, who has only been in the job since the summer.
Iraq shocked the football world when they beat Saudi Arabia 1-0 four years ago to win the Asian Cup while war raged back home.
Sidka acknowledged football was an escape for many war-weary Iraqis.
"We have a very, very large respect for the country and I know all the people in Iraq are interested in football — they are like one unit behind us," he said.
"It was a huge success in 2007 because they were not the favourites, so it was a big surprise.
"All my staff told me about the huge success but this is a new championship and we start from zero again."
Sidka has kept the bulk of the squad that brought Iraq their greatest ever football triumph, complemented by a sprinkling of young prospects, but there is a general feeling that the team peaked in 2007.
They may even struggle to get out of a Group D that also includes World Cup participants North Korea and United Arab Emirates.
A series of friendlies against regional rivals in November and December showed few signs Iraq are capable of another shock — but Sidka’s side appear to revel under the ‘underdog’ tag.
The pressure is also on Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi to deliver the goods and revive the glory days of the 1960s and 1970s. They have not won the Asian Cup since 1976.
"Football brings people together. The Iran-Iraq match is an opportunity for the Iran and Iraq people to mend hearts and be neighbours and friends," said Ghotbi.
Ghotbi previously said his team would win the Asian Cup, but Iran have been in patchy form in the run-up to Doha, culminating in an uninspiring 0-0 draw with hosts Qatar in a warm-up match on December 28.
"I think any coach, when he takes a job or a project, he sets targets and goals for his team," he said.
"I believe with the quality and passion we have in Iran, every coach has to target the championship, and we have the quality to win the tournament.
"But we hope we will have the luck that every champion needs.
"Iraq have the quality to go far in this competition, but I believe that my team is better."
Ghotbi will take over as coach of J-League side Shimizu S-Pulse in February.
He will be the first Iranian to manage in Japan but his decision to move there has led to accusations in football-mad Iran that Ghotbi is not entirely focused on the national side, which does not boast the talent of yesteryear.