TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has announced its final 23-man line-up for the 2018 World Cup, and included two players the regime had supposedly banned for life after playing against an Israeli team.
Iran arrives in Russia with arguably its most accomplished squad ever and the wind in its sails after an unbeaten run through qualifiers. The tournament kicks off next week.
Among them are Masoud Shojaei, 33, and Ehsan Haji Safi, 28, who were supposed to have been banned for life last summer after playing an Israeli team for their Greek club Panionios.
Iran does not recognize the Jewish state and bars its athletes from appearing against Israelis, but cannot openly ban players because it breaches international regulations.
After much confusion over the issue, Shojaei returned to the national squad in March and Hajsafi was never actually banned.
Iran has an unprecedented number of players from international leagues this year, with 12 of the squad currently playing with European clubs.
Iran has some strong choices up front, including Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who became the first Iranian to top the scoring table of a major European league with 21 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.
There are also big hopes for 23-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun, who has racked up 23 goals for Iran since making his debut in 2014.
The only change to the line-up when it was finalized on Monday was the decision to drop 22-year-old winger Ali Gholizadeh, who has just signed with Belgium’s Charleroi.
Iran’s national team has been coached for the past seven years by Portugal’s Carlos Queiroz, a former enforcer for Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and one-season boss at Real Madrid.
Queiroz has led Iran to its first back-to-back appearances at the World Cup. Iran will be hoping to improve on their winless appearance in Brazil.
Iran, nicknamed “Team Melli,” had an unbeaten run in qualifiers, becoming the first to book their place from the Asian Football Confederation.
But they face a tough group in the World Cup, with Spain, Portugal, and Morocco.
Iran World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Alireza Beiranvand (Persepolis), Rashid Mazaheri (Zob Ahan), Amir Abedzadeh (Maritimo/POR).
Defenders: Majid Hosseini (Esteghlal), Milad Mohammadi (Akhmat Grozny/RUS), Mohammad Khanzadeh (Padideh), Morteza Pouraliganji (Alsaad/QAT), Pejman Montazeri (Esteghlal), Ramin Rezaeian (Ostende/BEL), Roozbeh Cheshmi (Esteghlal).
Midfielders: Saeid Ezatolahi (Amkar Perm/RUS), Ehsan Haji Safi (Olympiacos/GRE), Omid Ebrahimi (Esteghlal), Masoud Shojaei (AEK Athens/GRE), Ashkan Dejagah (Nottingham Forest/ENG).
Forwards: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar/NED), Mahdi Taremi (Al-Gharafa/QAT), Saman Ghoddos (Ostersunds/SWE), Vahid Amiri (Persepolis), Mahdi Torabi (Saipa), Sardar Azmoun (Rubin Kazan/RUS), Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos/GRE), Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen/NED).