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Behnam Yakhchali on Iran's World Cup Qualifiers campaign: ''We won’t miss a beat''
TEHRAN (Iran) - Over the past decade and a half, Iran has been a name that is associated with dominance in the Asia basketball scene. Three Asia Cup titles, three straight world cup appearances, two Olympic berths.
"We will show the basketball spirit of Iran and have one thing on our mind which is to qualify for the World Cup."
With more and more success each time they take the court, the target on their backs get bigger and bigger as the team to take down. The perception from an outsider is that there would be immense pressure on the players to perform.
That’s not how they feel, however. At least not for star guard Behnam Yakhchali for this upcoming FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 Asian Qualifiers.
"I don’t think there is any pressure as far as qualifying again for the World Cup," he said. "We are confident that by playing hard and playing right, we can achieve our goal. We have great players that have lots of experience by playing at highest level."
"We will go step by step."
That Yakhchali mentions Iran having "great players that have lots of experience by playing at the highest level" might even be an understatement. Littered throughout the talent pool are players who have played professionally in foreign countries like himself among others.
Moreover, it’s players from the "Golden Generation" like Hamed Haddadi and Samad Nikkahbahrami who were among the trailblazers that set the bar high for those who followed in Iran basketball.
"We qualified first for the Olympics on 2008 and then the World Cup in 2010," said Yakhchali. "All of those players and coaching staff changed the mentality of Iranian basketball and paved the way for everyone. They believed in themselves and their teamwork and with that they put us on the map."
"They set a standard also that will last forever in the Iran and Asia basketball."
"Hamed and Samad are veterans who has been in basketball for many years and kept their level of performance. They have very good knowledge of basketball and all players among ourselves always exchange and keep learning from each other."
Go back up to the first paragraph and check those accomplishments again. That is the Iran basketball standard. While it was certainly not easy for them to reach the pinnacle of Asia basketball, it has been just as tough to stay at the top.
Even as some stars of that "Golden Generation" like Oshin Sahakian and Mehdi Kamrani have retired, Iran is still there among Asia’s best as wave after wave of younger talented players take up their places.
"The generation we have right now is also the result of Iran basketball being present at the highest level of basketball in the world. I talked about the standards and setting the bar high from the first championship and now I give also credit to all the players and who maintained and even raised that level higher so that Iranian basketball remains in such level."
Aside from Yakhchali himself, there’s players like Arsalan Kazemi, Mohammad Jamshidi, Mike Rostampour, Aaron Geramipoor, and Navid Rezaeifar that are those from a younger generation. There are the names, among others, that will be carrying the torch from Haddadi and Samad when the time comes.
"The transition has been going on for years, it wasn’t a sudden thing to happen so the adjustment was also gradual," Yakhchali explained.
"Most of us already play with each other at club and national team level so we know what each player can do. I also played in China with Hamed in the same club which gave us even more time to connect on the court."
"What [Hamed and Samad] were always telling us was to never forget how important it is to play for national team, to keep Iran on this level."
"The adjustment came also from all our coaching staff through all these years. Slowly our roles got bigger and more important. In 2014, I wasn’t starting in games. It was my first experience of major competition and you see the transition to 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics. I started and had a set role on the team."
"It’s the same for every one of my generation."
It certainly is exciting times for fans of "Team Melli". With younger players seeing their roles expanded in the upcoming games, we’ll start seeing new styles of basketball being plated by Iran.
"Basketball evolves year by year and so does the way we play basketball on both ends of the floor," he added.
"We have all types of players who can help the national team in their own way. We can play with a tall lineup or a small lineup. What I want to say is that we have the tools to play different style of basketball."
"What we are aiming is always to keep Iran on the highest level of competition and look forward to qualifying to higher rounds."
For Behnam Yakhchali and Iran, the current mission is straightforward.
"We need to be able to have good practices so that we can perform in best shape and form as a team. We will show the basketball spirit of Iran and have one thing on our mind which is to qualify for the World Cup."
"We won’t miss a beat."