Over the next four months, SI.com will profile two World Cup teams a week. We continue with Iran. Click here for the full archive.
FIFA world ranking: No. 22.
How they qualified: Finished second to Japan in Asia Group B with a 4-1-1 record.
Previous World Cups: Two appearances (1978, 1998).
Manager: Branko Ivankovic, fourth year with team.
When it comes to Iranian football, it begins and ends with Ali Daei, who is the all-time leading goal scorer in international matches. Daei -- whose 107 goals in 143 matches has shattered the previous record of 84 goals by Hungarian Ferenc Puskas -- may not be the same player he was eight years ago when Iran was last in the World Cup, but the 36-year-old striker still has a knack for finding the back of the goal at any moment. He was the leading scorer in Asia last year and has notched goals in Iran's last three matches.
Iran's hopes at success in the World Cup, however, hinge on the youthful legs of a quartet of players -- Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ferydoon Zandi and Vahid Hashemian -- currently honing their craft in Germany. The star of the group is Karimi, who was named the Asian Player of the Year in 2004. The 27-year-old striker, who has been nicknamed "The Wizard of Tehran," has been a mainstay on Bayern Munich's front line this season, stepping in when Michael Ballack was sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's scored three times this season for the German giants, including a goal in his Champions League debut.
What to watch for
"Team Melli" will be sending to Germany the most talented side it has ever had, rejuvenated by a bevy of youthful players who complement a strong core that has something to prove after the disappointment of failing to qualify for the '02 World Cup. But despite this squad's potential, it has yet to show the consistency it will take to put together a string of complete games to advance past the first round for the first time in Iranian history. This is the type of team that may shock the world with an upset of Portugal or Mexico and then put forth a lackluster effort in a loss to Angola. Such a fate would not come as a shock to the Iranian faithful, which saw their highly touted team fall to unheralded Bahrain 3-1 in '02 qualifying with a berth in the World Cup on the line.
Group: D (Mexico, Angola, Portugal)
Key match in group stage: June 11 vs. Mexico. Considering the fragile psyche of Iran's squad -- 15 players on its roster are between 21 and 25 years old -- how well Team Melli fares in its first World Cup match in eight years will go a long way in determining how well it does the rest of the tournament.