With newfound responsibility, captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh believes Iran can make World Cup history

Captaining Iran in their opening two matches in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Alireza Jahanbakhsh led by example with goals in both their wins over Syria and Iraq. ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Despite their status as one of Asian football's traditional powerhouses, Iran have never progressed further than the group stage of the FIFA World Cup.

But having made a perfect start to the third round of Asian qualifiers for next year's competition, and buoyed by some creditable displays at the last edition in Russia, Team Melli star Alireza Jahanbakhsh believes they could be on the verge of something special.

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In 2018, few gave the Iranians much of a chance to reach the knockout round even after they won their opening match against Morocco -- a fair appraisal given they had matches to come against giants Spain and Portugal.

Against the odds, they narrowly lost 1-0 to the Spanish -- in a game where they had an equaliser ruled out for offside -- and then drew 1-1 with the Portuguese, to just miss out on progressing to the Round of 16 by one point.

As Iran resume their quest to qualify for a third consecutive World Cup this week, having won their opening two matches in Group A of the qualifiers, Jahanbakhsh believes they can set their sights high for next summer -- although they must first get the job done in booking their ticket to Qatar 2022.

"100 percent, had we been a bit luckier, we could have even managed to make it to the next round (back in 2018)," he told ESPN. "I would say we have a very big chance (in 2022) because I think half of the team which played in that World Cup are now playing in these qualifiers together.

"We also have some young lads that have joined us from different clubs and I would say we now have a mix of experienced and young players, who are all very motivated to perform for the national team. I think this combination can help take us even higher and higher."

Iran have enjoyed a history of successful exports to European football, including the likes of Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi, but past generations pale in comparison to the current crop in terms of sheer volume of players plying their trade in the top leagues.

In addition to Jahanbakhsh, who left Premier League outfit Brighton earlier in the summer to join Eredivisie giants Feyenoord, Team Melli also boast standouts such as Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, who spearhead the attacks of Porto and Zenit St. Petersburg respectively, and goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand of Boavista to name but a few.

But does Jahanbakhsh think he and his current teammates can be referred to as Iranian football's "golden generation?"

"It's of course hard for me to be the judge," he added. "I would say this is one of the best generations of our country. I think 80 percent of the team is now outside (of Iran) in different countries, not just playing but doing really well, being important and making a difference for their teams.

"When we look at it ten years ago, it wasn't really like this. I know from the potential of the players back home in Iran, if they bring their talent to Europe and develop themselves, they can make it really far.

"I'm just so happy because when I came to Europe nine or ten years ago, there weren't so many of us playing outside (of Iran). Hopefully, we can have 100 percent of the national team playing outside and just doing well for their clubs and performing for the flag of Iran."

On the immediate horizon for Iran in their quest for World Cup qualification is Thursday's trip to United Arab Emirates before they host South Korea next Tuesday, games that Jahanbakhsh expects will be even tougher than their previous wins over Syria and Iraq.

Having captained Team Melli in those two previous outings, the 28-year-old is relishing his newfound added responsibility as he looks back fondly on how far he has come on the international stage over the past decade.

"I think it was in 2013 when I made my debut with the national team, which was a dream come true," Jahanbakhsh recounted. "Just six months later, I played at the World Cup for my country, which is not something I'd planned for.

"... Now, nine or ten years later, I'm leading Team Melli onto the pitch. I can't even describe the feeling to be honest -- it's such a big honour for me and I get goosebumps now just thinking about it."