ONE minute they were 300-1 underdogs, the joke team who everybody had a good chuckle about. The next minute they were the Lions of Persia, a side who had the talent to trouble Germany. Iran's World Cup campaign was, to put it mildly, an experience of extremes. They came into the tournament as whipping boys and left with the praise and respect of the world's media ringing in their ears. This fact, above anything else, was what Iran's players were talking about yesterday as they packed their bags and headed for Paris from their training base in Yssingeaux. 'We showed people we know football and we showed them our culture. We say thank you to FIFA for giving us this opportunity,' was the viewpoint of Mohammad Khakpour, Iran's sweeper and arguably the team's best international ambassador. 'No-one gave us much of a chance before the tournament began but we always knew that we could do well. The spirit in the squad just got stronger and stronger . . . this has been a great experience for us and for Iranian football. 'We learnt so much while we were here. This is just the beginning for us . . . we can build on our form here and do better. Our target must now be to qualify for the next World Cup and get into the second round. It is important that we keep moving forward.' Like so many of his teammates, Khakpour could find that the World Cup has been a launch-pad for an international career. Several approaches have been made and he is so far weighing up the alternatives. One man who will definitely be saying goodbye to Iranian club football is Mehdi Mahdavikia. When the tournament started, the 20-year-old wing-back seemed headed for Dalian Wanda; now his future destination is less certain. Mahdavikia says the Iranian player exodus is a good thing. 'This World Cup showed that there is only a narrow gap between us and the big teams,' he said.