Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia, Vahid Hashemian and Ali Karimi have undoubtedly been the most successful Iranian footballing exports to Europe, and shone when playing for their respective clubs across the continent. With the World Cup fast approaching, many fans may be unaware of the talent already present in Iran’s squad who look set for European stardom next season. Here are 3 of the most promising players from the Iran camp:
1. Alireza Jahanbakhsh
Eyebrows were raised when this 19-year-old winger signed for the Eredivisie outfit NEC Nijmegen in May 2013. Previously at the unremarkable Damash Gilan for 1 season, he scored an impressive 11 goals in 21 starts for the Iranian Under 20 and 23 national teams – captaining the former at the age of 18.
After endearing himself to the NEC fans within a month of his arrival by uploading a video to YouTube singing the club song, Jahanbakhsh mostly featured from the bench during the first half of the season – invigorating a struggling NEC side with a few swashbuckling appearances down the wing.
Fans, coaches and the public sat up and took notice when he scored two goals and assisted the other in a 3-2 victory at high-flying AZ Alkmaar in December, scoring and assisting later in the month again at FC Groningen.
Come 2014, he featured regularly for NEC, unable to prevent them sliding further towards relegation. Needing a result from their game away at champions Ajax, Jahanbakhsh was brought on in the second half and scored two late goals to level the game at 2-2 – a huge achievement for the youngster, his strikes almost single-handedly leading NEC to a relegation playoff match rather than automatic demotion.
NEC were, however, relegated, losing a playoff despite their valiant efforts to stay in the top division. Numerous media outlets have since reported that Manchester United and Hamburger SV have inquired about Jahanbakhsh’s availability for transfer, and he looks set to leave NEC after the World Cup – European football beckoning with a slightly more realistic move to FC Groningen on the cards.
2. Sardar Azmoun
As a 16 year old striker, Sardar Azmoun scored a sensational 19 goals in 17 appearances for Iran’s Under-20 national team. Already a member of Sepahan’s first team by the age of 15, Russian side Rubin Kazan came calling in January 2013, fending off a bid from Inter Milan to take the youngster into deepest, darkest Russia.
His first foray into the Russian game came through the Rubin reserve squad, scoring 2 goals in 8 appearances by the end of the season. The following campaign, Azmoun made his debut for the senior squad in a Europa League game, becoming the youngest ever Iranian to feature in Europe. His second senior appearance saw him score against Molde in the same competition, his league debut reaping similar rewards with a goal and an assist in a 5-1 win over Anzhi Makhachkala.
By the end of the 2014 season, Azmoun had made a total of 14 appearances for Rubin, scoring goals against Rostov, Kyrila Sovetov and notably, the Andre Villas Boas-managed Zenit St Petersburg.
Dubbed the ‘Iranian Messi’ by the global sporting media, Arsenal allegedly submitted a £2 million offer to the Russian side in March to sign the 19 year old, sparking interest from AC Milan and Liverpool among-st others.
Azmoun has already posted farewell messages to Rubin Kazan on his personal Instagram account, suggesting that his departure is surely imminent. Photoshopped images of him against a backdrop of the Emirates Stadium suggest that his intended post-World Cup destination may indeed be North London.
3. Ashkan Dejagah
A part of the German side that won the 2009 UEFA Under-21 European Championship alongside Mesut Özil, Mats Hummels and Manuel Neuer, Ashkan Dejagah accepted an invitation to the Iranian national squad by Carlos Queiroz in 2011.
After a successful five-year stint at VFL Wolfsburg which included a Bundesliga title, Dejagah joined English Premier League side Fulham in 2012, only the third Iranian to play in the British Isles. A successful first season was dampened by injury, which kept him out of much of the club’s pre-season training.
Bouncing back from a slow start to the managerial merry-go-round of the 2013-14 season, Dejagah scored splendid strikes against Newcastle and Hull during Fulham’s doomed fight against relegation. He finished as the club’s second highest goalscorer for the season.
His efforts did not go unnoticed, as Fulham fans voted him as their player of the year despite a tumultuous campaign. Whether he will continue his career in the Championship is unknown, with Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin looking to tempt him back to his home town after this summer’s festivities.