DOHA, Qatar – Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi downplayed the historic animosity with Iraq on Monday ahead of their opening match at the Asian Cup, instead saying soccer could help bridge the divide between countries that fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.
Ghotbi and Iraq's Wolfgang Sidka acknowledged the importance of the Group D game while steering clear of politics and conflicts.
"It's not a war. It's just football," Ghotbi said. "What makes football fascinating is that it brings people together, and I hope the match will mend fences and make us good neighbors and friends."
Sidka has added pressure in being German and thus an outsider, plus he is also coaching the defending champions.
"I don't know whether my players are Sunni, Shiite or Kurds," Sidka said. "I never asked them because what is important for me is good relations within the team. We have a huge responsibility. Our job is to deliver a good football performance and make Iraqis happy."
The war between Iran and Iraq claimed hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. Since the United States-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein, Iran has used its ancient trade and religious ties to influence Iraq.
Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has close ties with the Shiite Iran, raising suspicions among many Iraqis that Tehran is calling the shots in Baghdad.
Iraq was a surprise at the 2007 Asian Cup, winning the title for the first time to bring the deeply divided nation together at a time of some of the worst sectarian fighting in centuries between Sunni and Shiite militias.
Since then, Iraqi soccer has fallen victim to political infighting, resulting in the team slipping from 58th to 101st in the world rankings and the national federation being suspended for a period by FIFA.
Sidka took over in August and the team has won eight matches since September, including reaching the Gulf Cup semifinals.
"It was a huge success in 2007 and a big surprise too, but it is a new tournament and we start from zero," Sidka said. "We are well prepared and I am sure about us. It's a derby and a very important match. It's also a very, very tough match."
The teams first met at the Asian Cup in 1972 in Thailand, with Iran winning 2-0. Four years later, host Iran beat Iraq by the same score. Their next meeting came 20 years later in the United Arab Emirates, with Iraq coming out on top 2-1. In the 2000 tournament in Lebanon, Iran won 1-0.
It has been 35 years since the last of Iran's three Asian Cup titles, but Ghotbi says that is set to change.
"Iraq has a good team and I have great respect for them, but I believe my team is better," Ghotbi said. "We have prepared well, we have the quality to win this tournament and we have the luck that is necessary for anyone to become the champion."