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Soccer-Nigeria's Super Eagles ready to soar over Iran

Reuters

By Alan Baldwin

CURITIBA, Brazil, June 14 (Reuters) - Planet Football looked altogether different the last time Nigeria or Iran, who kick off their Group F adventure at Curitiba's box-like Baixada Arena on Monday, won a match at a World Cup.

Back then, in another millennium, Brazil were the reigning champions while Spain wondered whether their long record of failure would ever end.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was a sprightly 60-something, Neymar only six and Lionel Messi a 10-year-old talent in the making.

Since France 1998, when Nigeria were a power to be reckoned with after beating Spain and Bulgaria to top their group, the Super Eagles have struggled to get off the ground in the tournament proper.

This time, however, they have every chance of making a flying start.

Monday's is a match both sides will see as a must-win if they are to have any chance of progressing from a group that includes Messi's heavily-fancied Argentina and exciting debutants Bosnia.

Coach Stephen 'Big Boss' Keshi, who captained the 1994 Nigerian side that reached the second round as winners of a group that also included former champions Argentina, is hoping to rekindle some of that magic.

Then, as now, Nigeria arrive as the African champions and even if their current squad is unpredictable and lacking the charisma and firepower of old, they will still start as favourites.

"The 1994 squad was a beautiful squad. It is my dream to have that spirit in this present squad. To have the unity, the oneness, the commitment, the togetherness, that would be great," Keshi told africanfootball.com earlier this month.

Nigeria's finals record since that last victory in France stands at two draws and six defeats, even if they won the African Nations Cup in 2013.

They also failed to win any of their three pre-Cup friendlies on the way to Brazil and were outclassed in last year's Confederations' Cup.

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Iran's resume makes no better reading. Since they beat political foes the United States 2-1 in a memorable 1998 night in Lyon, a win sandwiched between two defeats, 'Team Melli' have been no more than World Cup makeweights.

Brazil marks only the fourth finals appearance for a team that last qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where they lost twice and drew once.

Now the top-ranked side in Asia, Iran do have an impressive defensive record and a manager with plenty of tactical acumen in former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz - who is tipped to leave after the tournament - and could spring a shock or two.

The Mozambique-born Portuguese favours a 4-2-3-1 formation, with captain Javad Nekounam the midfield fulcrum to allow Reza 'Gucci' Ghoochannejhad and winger Ashkan Dejagah to surge forward on the counter-attack.

"We mustn't make any mistakes," said midfielder Andranik Teymourian. "I can say with confidence that we will be a surprise for all people."

Germany-based Daniel Davari can expect to get the nod in goal over veteran Rahman Ahmadi and faces a busy afternoon against a side that includes the likes of John Obi Mikel, livewire left winger Victor Moses and striker Peter Odemwingie.

At the other end, Nigeria can call on the formidable Vincent Enyeama, who denied Messi with superb saves in the 2010 finals in South Africa. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Patrick Johnston)

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