Thailand: Peter Withe (ENG)
Iran: Miroslav Blazevic (CRO)
Plucky Thais hold Iran to goalless draw in World Cup qualifier
BANGKOK, Sept 1 (AFP)
Thailand's plucky national side held Asian footballing powerhouse Iran to a goalless draw Saturday, in an impressive performance that gives them a shot at qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. After a 4-0 drubbing by Iraq in their opening match in the Asian zone second qualifying round, Thailand claimed a valuable first point in the do-or-die clash at Rajmangala National Stadium.
Thailand were unfancied against Iran, who have qualified for two previous World Cups and looked impressive in their opening match, a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
But the Thais were the stronger side, and enjoyed more shots on goal, spurred on by fanatical home support.
Some 37,000 fans were on their feet for much of the match, brandishing thousands of Thai national flags as they cheered on the up-and-coming side who would have been out of the running if they lost to Iran.
Thailand's English coach Peter Withe was jubilant, saying that the performance proved the national team had broken into the footballing big-time.
"After the 0-4 loss, we were able to make a comeback. We proved that getting into this round was not a fluke, and that we can fight against a world-class team like Iran. I'm so proud that we are back on track again."
Iran's coach Miroslav Blazevic admitted his side was lucky to come away with a point for a draw. "Thailand played very well. It was hell for Iran today. Any team who can beat Thailand on their home soil must be at its best. We were lucky not to lose," said Blazevic, who led Croatia to the semi-finals in France 98.
Thailand's manager Virach Chanpanich agreed, saying "we should have won".
"Too bad, we squandered many scoring chances. However, I am satisfied with the result as we met our goal," he said.
Thailand created a series of opportunities to score but all were denied by keeper Ibrahim Mirzapour who put in a faultless performance.
Some of the side's top players, including Ali Daei who plays for German Bundesliga club Hertha Berlin, and Mehdi Mahdavikia who plays for fellow German giants Hamburg, were effectively shut out of the game. The action began in the 10th minute, when Thailand's star striker Kiatisak "Zico" Senamuang crossed from the right flank. Sakesan Piturat rushed in, attempting to connect, but Mehdi Hashemi Nassab poked it out.
Six minutes later, the Iranian keeper tipped over a 25-yard shot by Nirut Surasiang.
The Thais came out brimming with confidence in the second half. Four minutes after the break, Kiatisak crossed from the right side to Sakesan but Mirsapour snatched the ball before Sakesan could connect with it. In the 55th minute, Tawan Sripan showed off his side-stepping skills, fooling Rahman Rezaei and shooting from 18 yards out. But Mirzapour was equally agile, and dived to block the shot.
In the 75th minute, Mirzapour made another class save when he punched out Chookiat's point blank header. Later, Suthee Suksomkit's 17-yard effort flew tantalizingly past the goal face. A final effort by Kiatisak also ended up cradled in the keeper's arms, again saving the day for the Iranians who now have four points to their credit.
Thailand will now prepare for their clash against Bahrain in Manama on Thursday, where they may find that the twin problems of jet lag and searing heat -- which proved troublesome in the Iraq game -- may strike again."We have a problem with the hot weather in the Middle East. In the 0-4 loss to Iraq, we conceded three goals in 15 minutes which resulted from the unfamiliar conditions," said Virach."However, we learned from that and this time we have three days to get acclimatized," he said.
The winner of the five-team group qualifies for the finals automatically with the runner-up playing off against the second team in Group B of the Asian zone. The winner of that match then faces a European runner-up for a place in the finals.