American-born right back Steven Beitashour and Iran kick off their fourth appearance in the World Cup against fellow Group F underdogs Nigeria in the high-altitude city of Curitiba. With Argentina and Bosnia-Herzegovina the heavy favorites to advance, neither team can afford a draw.
BUCKING THE TREND: If history is any indication, this could be a very short trip for both Team Melli and the Super Eagles. It’s been 16 years since either Iran or Nigeria won a game in the World Cup, despite featuring in three tournaments each since 1998. The 1998 Cup was the last time that Nigeria made it out of the group stage, where they lost in the round of 16 for the second straight tournament. Iran, on the other hand, have never made it past the group stage of the competition.
IRAN WHO? Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi perhaps gave the Iranians a little bulletin board material when he admitted to FIFA.com that "we don't know Iran very well." He also lamented the African teams' "lack of tactical discipline and concentration." Both of these have Iranians rubbing their hands gleefully.
WHO’S NO. 1?: Most teams have positions where there are a few players competing to be a starter, but it’s a little unusual at this stage of the process for a team to have questions about who’s going to be starting in net. The finalists for Iran’s No. 1 shirt seem to be Alireza Haghighi and Rahman Ahmadi, and they’ve both gotten starts in Team Melli’s pre-tournament friendlies. On the bright side, Nigeria will be as surprised as anyone when Carlos Queiroz names his starting XI.
THE MLS CONNECTION: Vancouver Whitecaps defender Steven Beitashour could have played for the US national team, but ultimately decided to play for his parents’ native Iran. The decision has paid off with a trip to the World Cup, giving Beitashour a chance on the game's biggest stage. The trick now is to keep a lid on a talented Nigerian offense that includes Victor Moses, Peter Odemwingie and Emmanuel Emenike.
THE REPLACEMENT: Nigeria announced last week that highly touted left-back Uwa Echiejile would miss the World Cup with a muscle tear. The heir apparent at the moment is 23-year-old Juwon Oshaniwa, who has just 10 caps with the Super Eagles. It may be that Oshaniwa proves himself a reliable replacement, but it’s an area of concern for Nigeria.
THE STAR YOU KNOW: John Obi Mikel, Nigeria. The Chelsea FC midfielder has proven his quality at one of the best clubs in the world. Look out for his defensive presence in midfield.
THE PLAYER WHO WILL SURPRISE YOU: Reza Ghoochannejhad, Iran. "Gucci," who plays for Charlton Athletic, has scored nine goals in Iran’s 11 Asian Cup qualifiers to win the tournament’s Golden Boot.