DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Carlos Queiroz and his Iran team came into qualifying for the 2014 World Cup as one of the favourites to advance. Now, with three group matches left, they're in danger of missing out.
The Iranians will take on 101st-ranked Qatar at Doha on Tuesday in what both teams consider a must-win match, with each trailing Uzbekistan and South Korea for one of the two automatic qualifying spots from Group A.
On paper, Iran should be favoured to win, but nothing can be taken for granted from a team whose injury-plagued attack has scored just two goals in the past five qualifiers.
"It's a crucial, crucial match for both teams. We are running now out of time," Queiroz told The Associated Press. "As you know, everybody can be in and everybody can be out. Even Lebanon still has a chance so these final three games are crucial for all the teams."
Iran captain Javad Nekounam was even more blunt, insisting the match "probably will be one of the most important games of my career" and adding that he was hopeful the team could still reach the World Cup for a fourth time despite a qualification campaign he described as a "very difficult journey."
Qatar, with only two group matches remaining, can still book a spot for Brazil despite a losing record against Iran. Iran has three victories to Qatar's one in past World Cup qualifiers, but the teams have drawn the past three qualifiers, including a 2-2 draw that ensured the 2022 World Cup host reached this stage of the competition.
"We are ready for Iran," Qatar national team director Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud said on the Qatar Football Association's website. "It won't be easy, but with the support of our fans our team can win this match ...The players have a huge responsibility."
The match with Qatar also has political overtones, since both countries have been flexing their muscle on the regional stage and often have been at odds -- most recently over Syria. It is unlikely that Qatar -- where political dissent is prohibited-- will allow protests to spill into the stadium, but experts say a victory will carry extra weight due to the growing rivalry between the countries.
"As much as people try to say sport is neutral, you can never separate sports and politics," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva. "Athletes are representing a country. This is, by nature, a political act. The history of sports is full of political backstories: U.S. versus the Soviet Union, Israel being shunned by many Muslim countries and, to add to the list, Iran and its rivals in the Gulf."
Amir Hosein Hoseini, a spokesman for the Football Federation of Iran, called the match with Qatar "very sensitive" and complained Iranian reporters had not yet been issued visas.
It isn't the first time that politics has overshadowed a match between Iran, which has overwhelming Shiite population, and Persian Gulf nations ruled by Sunnis. The United Arab Emirates cancelled a friendly against Iran last year due to a simmering territorial dispute, while FIFA appointed a security expert to monitor an earlier World Cup qualifier between Iran and Bahrain due to fears of fan violence.
Queiroz and Nekounam insist politics will play no part in the match and that their only concern is winning for the football fans back home. The team hasn't played in the World Cup since 2006.
"We will play with our heart and soul and give it 100 per cent as we have done previously," said Nekounam, who played seven seasons with Spanish side Osasuna and now plays for the Iranian club Esteghlal. "We know our people, our nation wants our team to be in the World Cup. This gives us double motivation."
Queiroz, a former Portugal and Real Madrid manager, said he has "no doubt" the team will reach the World Cup. But he acknowledged it faces plenty of hurdles, including the loss several players to injury including Hadi Aghili, Mahdi Rahmati, Ali Karimi and star midfielder Ashkan Dejagah, who was hurt playing for Fulham.
Several other stars had not yet arrived by the weekend including Osasuna's Masoud Shojaei -- a problem that has plagued the team throughout the campaign.
"In Asia, there are a lot of circumstances sometimes outside the game that can influence the performance of the players like travelling, the distances, the weather," Queiroz said. "We can only bring players 48 hours before a crucial game for the World Cup. Qatar has its team in camp and they are preparing all the players. It is unfair or an unbalanced situation."
Qatar has injury woes of its own, announcing Monday that star striker Sebastian Soria won't be available.
"We respect the Iranian team knowing they are better ranked than us," Qatar coach Fahad Than said. "But football is game of small details and the match on the pitch will tell a different story to the form team. We will miss Sebastian Soria. However, we have quality replacements. Our team is made of players who are ready to work for each other."