Iran, already facing crisis over post-election violence and a country-wide media crackdown, suffered another setback Wednesday as its World Cup hopes were put in jeopardy in a 1-1 draw in its final group qualifying match against South Korea.
The draw leaves Iran depending on a North Korea victory away at Saudi Arabia in Wednesday's later qualifier.
If that match in Riyadh is drawn, Iran is eliminated. A North Korea win would give Iran third spot in Group B, and a further two-legged playoff against the third team from Group A — either Bahrain or Uzbekistan depending on the result of their Wednesday qualifier.
If Saudi Arabia wins and secures the automatic spot at South Africa 2010, it will come down to goal difference to determine which of Iran and North Korea places third.
South Korea, though having already secured World Cup qualification, was determined to finish its campaign with a flourish, and attacked relentlessly in the closing stages, scoring in the 81st minute to tie the game.
The equalizer came via one of Park Ji-sung's trademark surging runs into the box. He exchanged passes with a teammate, then fired low, beating Iranian goalkeeper Seyed Rahmati at the near post.
The hosts had a chance to win in the final minute of regulation time, as substitute Cho Won-hee burst between two lunging defenders and almost rounded Rehmati, who got a despairing hand to the ball and a defender came into clear.