By Patrick Johnston
June 6 (Reuters) - Iran head to Brazil as Asia's top-ranked nation but their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of a World Cup for the first time have been hampered by a lack of top class friendly opposition and a wave of negativity surrounding the team.
After booking their spot in the finals by winning their qualifying group last June, Iran, ranked number one in Asia and 37th in the world by FIFA, did not play a friendly until they lost 2-1 at home to Guinea in March.
By contrast, Asian champions Japan faced World Cup finalists Uruguay, Netherlands, Belgium and Ghana in friendlies as they attempted to give their squad an experience of the task they will face in Brazil.
Iran's Portuguese boss Carlos Queiroz bemoaned the situation, believed to be down to politics and finances, after the loss to Guinea, which drew withering criticism from a local media fed up with the sluggish performances of an aging team.
"We try our best, we have limited resources, we have some issues in our preparations but the federation make a lot of efforts to give the best to the players and the team," Queiroz said at the Asian Cup draw in March.
"In the last three years despite all the difficulties, Iran has showed the number one most important thing in the football world - passion.
"If you have passion for the game, that is always a good starting point. With the passion of the players and the fans, we were able to qualify for the World Cup."
The former Real Madrid and Portugal boss, who is expected to step down after the World Cup, tapped his contacts to help fix a training camp and warm-up matches in South Africa, whom he used to coach, in April and the team continued preparations in Austria last month.
There they recorded goalless stalemates with Belarus and Montenegro, followed by a 1-1 draw against Angola before the team set of to Brazil to take on Trinidad and Tobago in Sao Paulo eight days before their Group F opener against Nigeria in Curitiba on June 16.
However, the camp in Austria brought up more problems with Queiroz criticising the quality of the squad's training gear, which left German manufacturer Uhlsport "shocked and shaken" and denying the claims.
Queiroz would have hoped the games can provide him with a chance to find a solution to their struggle for goals, which has led to him scouring the Iranian diaspora to help boost his defence-oriented side.
Team Melli managed only three goals in the first five games of their final Asian qualifying group before striker Reza "Gucci" Ghoochannejhad, who was born in Tehran but emigrated to Netherlands as a child, was found and fired the team to a fourth World Cup.
Although grouped with one of the tournament favourites Argentina, hopes were raised that they could advance to the last 16 for the first time after they were also drawn against Bosnia and Nigeria in an expected three-way battle for second place.
However, the task of adding to their sole World Cup finals victory over political foes the United States in 1998 looks beyond them.
"(We must) take this World Cup as a learning process, and that doesn't mean that we go there for tourism. We go to Brazil to create a legacy and the legacy is to put the team in a good position to be stronger after the World Cup but better prepared and more experienced," Queiroz said.
"No doubt since I arrived, there is great progress in the players, great progress in the team. There is a great potential in Iran, it is just a matter of putting things in the right place.
"Three years ago Iran was fourth or fifth in Asia and today is the number one country."
Expect a cagey, counter-attacking approach in a brief Brazil appearance. (Additional reporting by Nick Mulvenney. Editing by John O'Brien and Mike Collett)
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