Iranian Football Players in Europe: A Bridge Over Amateurism (Part I)

Tamashagaran; Soccer Monthly
Oct. 1999, No. 44
By: Majid Abbasqoli
Page: 5 - 13

Summary: The record of Iranian football players' presence in European teams goes back to half a century ago. The main departure of Iranian footballers to Europe took place after the Asian Cup in 1996. At present, there are 12 Iranian players only in Germany. There are others playing in Austrian, Greek, Belgian, Chinese, American, as well as some other Asian and European clubs.

Text: The presence of Iranian players in foreign clubs dates back to decades ago. Hossein Sadaqiani, the first coach of the National Iranian Soccer Team, is considered one of the first Iranians in foreign clubs. Before returning to the country, Sadaqiani played for the first division Belgian Cherleroi. Almost simultaneously with Sadaqiani, a goalkeeper named Hosseinali Khan Sardar wore the shirt of the first division Swiss club of Servette of Geneva and even appeared in the field for the National Belgian Team. In this way for decades a number of Iranian footballers played in not so famous foreign teams away from the hue and cry. This ranged from Behzad Farahani (Iranian theater and cinema actor) who appeared in the field in a second division team in France to Mansour Rashidi who passed all the medical and technical tests of Bayern Munich in 1970s, and from Naser Hejazi who was wanted by clubs such as Derby County, Coventry, Manchester United and West Ham to Iraj Danaie Fard and Andranik Estankarian who in late 1970s joined New York's Cosmos (where Pele, Beckenbauer, Cryuff played) and continued to played in American clubs for years.

Reza Adelkhani and Moslem Khani also set out for Europe in the same decade. Hassan Roushan joined Al Ahli of Dubai in 1978 assisting the team to gain its only championship title in the United Arab Emirate's history of soccer. He then departed for American clubs and played for Fort Lauderdale and American Indoor Soccer. And Finally Ebrahim Qasempour who might have the longest record among the Iranian footballers. Qasempour played for Arab states of the Persian Gulf and North Africa for almost 15 years and even gained the championship of Asian Clubs Cup with Al Saad. He also went ahead with Al Rayan and Al Arabi to obtain the same position.

The second wave of migration of Iranian players to not much famous foreign clubs in the Persian Gulf started in the 1980s and early 1990s. Ahadi and Alidousti went to Germany and played for the second division contests of the country. Ahadi played for Rot-Weiss Erfurt, the second team of Bochum, and Alidousti for Zalmaur. With respect to the regulations of the time, the two players were deprived of playing for the national team for six months due to their joining foreign clubs! The interesting point was that the few print media which existed at the time were ordered not to publish any report or photos of these players. Yet despite this, they displayed a visible maturity in their plays after returning to the country. Specially Alidousti who at the age of 39 and after winning two championship cups of Azadegan League and Iran's Soccer Cup along with his team, became a coach. In 30 appearances in 86 and 87 seasons of second division Bundesliga, Alidousti scored 10 goals. Ahadi appeared in the field in these contests in eight matches scoring one goal.

Furthermore, players such as Abdolreza Barzegari, Hossein Farraki, Naser Mohammad Khani, Abdolali Changiz, Shahrokh and Shahin Bayani, Mohammad Panjali, Mohsen Ashouri, Hassan Shir Mohammadi, Amir Qale-Nouee, Abdolsamad Marfavi, Farshad Pious, Ali Daie, , Afshin Peirovani, Hamid Derakhshan, Morteza Kermani, Majid Namjou-Motlaq, Hamid Estili, Amir Hashemi Moqadam and .. have played for foreign clubs (most of them in Persian Gulf region).

The most important factor behind these players' joining not so powerful foreign teams was their higher incomes compared to the amateur and low-income soccer in Iran. For this reason, despite their great capability, they lost their fitness to a great extent and performed poorly.

But in the late 1990s, Iran reached its turning point. After a short period (less than three years) several Iranian players were dispatched to play for first division European teams and a great number of others were in the waiting list. Footballers such as Farhad Majidi, Afshin Peirovani, Rasoul Khatibi, Behnam Seraj, Mehdi Hashemi Nasab, Hamed Kavianpour, Younes Bahonar, Javad Zarincheh and... are waiting to join the Iranian footballers abroad.


The competitions of the 1996 Asian Nations Cup in the United Arab Emirates opened a new chapter in Iran's soccer history. The games which enjoyed broader TV coverage than other soccer contests in this continent attracted the attention of a great number of international experts and officials of European clubs. The simultaneous mid-season holiday of the German Bundesliga provided Ernest Middendrop and Rudriger Lamme, head-coach and manager of the Arminia Bielefeld Club with the chance to observe the contests closely while having objectives in mind.

Due to the financial weakness of the club (compared to powerful and well-known German clubs), the specific objective of the officials of the Arminia Bielefeld was to attract skilled players from South Korea which at that time held the most credited soccer among the Asian countries. Therefore, these two closely watched the S. Korea-Iran match very carefully. But the very strange result of the game, the eye-catching play of the Iranian team and the successive goals scored by Ali Daie, the tall Iranian forward, attracted their attention. Lamme and Middendorp entered into talks with Daie who was at that time the on-loan player of Qatar's Al Assad. A few days later, Ali Daie was named by the Germany-based International Confederation of Soccer Statistics and History as the best goal scorer in the world in 1996 and Daie went to Germany to get his trophy. This encouraged other European clubs to think about attracting Daie. Rapid Vienna and Tirol of Austria, British Nattingham Forest, Hamburg, Borussia Dortmund of Germany (season champion of European clubs), each showed their willingness to have the Iranian striker. However, talks between Abedini, Managing Director of Perspolis, and officials of Arminia Bielefeld led to agreement and Daie decided to play for the German club for two years since May 1997 along with the other Iranian player Karim Baqeri. The German side was said to have paid one million Marks (about dlrs 550,000) for Daie but no figure was mentioned for transfer of Baqeri!

Arminia Bielefeld did its best to also attract Khodadad Azizi (player of the year of 1996 Asian soccer) but Cologne paid three million dollars and took him for three years. Cologne which has been famous for decades as one of the poles in German soccer, was facing a back-breaking financial stagnation which did not allow it attract expensive players. Under this condition, a great number of Cologne advocates, protested to the presence of slightly-built Azizi at such a high cost. Yet, the first Iranian footballers embarked on joining the European first division soccer and third class teams.


In his first Bundesliga game for his team in August 1997, Daie, wearing the Shirt No. 9 in the city of Bochum and against this very team, presented an acceptable full-time (90-minute) appearance although Arminia Bielefeld was defeated 1-0.

The next week, Arminia Bielefeld was host to Stuttgart. In the very first half and in front of the eyes of tens of thousands of Bielefeld fans, Stuttgart players scored a goal. But a few minutes into the second half, the newly-joined Iranian scorer, received the ball from his co-player in the penalty area, and kicked it between Frank Verlaat, the Dutch captain of the rival team and Thomas Berthold another famous and veteran back of Stuttgart, and found the net from beside Franz Wohlfahrt's hands.

This was Bielefeld's first goal in the new Bundesliga season. The fanatic fans jumped into the air and remembering the famous slogan they shouted 23 years ago for Mohammad Ali Kelly, shouted unanimously "Hurrah, Hurrah Ali..."


Simultaneous with the World Cup qualification contests of Iran, Daie was caught between the national team and Bundesliga and the German league. Despite this, he appeared well in both scenes. At the end of the preliminary World Cup contests and Iran's qualification for the games, Khodadad Azizi and Karim Baqeri also performed brilliantly for Cologne and Bielefeld.

Now, teams like Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Karlsruhe, and Wolfsburg, Kaiserslautern and Stuttgart found that their goalies are being defeated by three Iranian footballers every week. However, the efforts of these three players to preserve the status of the two financially fragile teams of the Bundesliga did not bear fruit and Cologne and Arminia Bielefeld were relegated to the second division. This was the first time Cologne faced such a fate in the 35-year history of Bundesliga. The weakness and inexperience of the goalkeepers and backs of these two teams were assessed as the main reasons behind their falling into the second division while neither Cologne nor Arminia Bielefeld could afford reliable goalkeepers and defense. They even failed to employ first class and famous coaches. When Winfried Schaffer, the renowned coach of Bundesliga volunteered to lead Cologne, the club failed to give him the minimum wage he had proposed. But the three Iranian players were warmly welcomed by Western soccer fans. Daie was listed as the 52nd player of the world in 1997 in the FIFA classification and Baqeri ranking after Ronaldo, while receiving the prize of the second best scorer of the world in 1997, was listed as the 58th best player. Azizi was nominated to receive the prize of the best man of the year of Asian Soccer but the trophy was given to Japan's Nakata on the eleventh hour.

Scoring eight goals in his limited appearances in Bundesliga and one goal in the German Clubs League, Daie attached much attention to the extent that the technical advisor of Leverkusen, Rudi Voller, said prior to the match between his team and Arminia Bielefeld, "The rival can be summarized in just one name, Daie."

Kaiserslautern, which was on the verge of losing the championship of the Bundesliga after receiving two beautiful goals from him, referred to Bielefeld with an 8-million mark proposal. Lothar Matthaus, named Daie as the best header of the Bundesliga. Beckenbauer's praise for the Iranian striker caused that Ottmar Hitzfeld put him in the list of the players he wants. In this way Bayern Munich took Daie at its service by paying Arminia Bielefeld four million marks in cash (the second largest amount paid by the club in 1998) and giving on loan two young players (almost worth three million marks). This is while Bayern Munich paid only 1.5 million marks to its Munchen 1860 to buy a player like Jens Jeremies (fixed player of National German team)! and did not pay anything to the Hamburg and Schalke 04 to get Hasan Salihamidzic, the Bosnian phenomenon of the Bundesliga and Thomas Linke, the defense of the national German team.

Simultaneous with Daie's transfer, proposals were raised by various clubs to have the other two Iranian players of the Bundesliga. But the Arminia Bielefeld and Cologne, refusing the proposals, announced that Karim Baqeri and Khodadad Azizi were worth more than the proposed figures. In this way, Karim and Khodadad were inevitably forced to accompany their teams in the second division contests, something very heavy and difficult to bear.


At the end of the 1998 World Cup contests, the professional international clubs who had got further acquainted with Iranian players, started negotiations with Iranian clubs which led to the dispatch of another group of Iranian players to foreign clubs especially German or Austrian. Of course, maybe the main reason behind Iranian players joining German and Austrian clubs was firstly the relative familiarity of these countries' clubs with Iranian players and secondly in the second half of the 1990s and among countries famous for their soccer, merely the two countries of Germany and Austria adopted the policy of 3-5-3 as their main policy for their national team and clubs. Therefore Iranian players who had got acquainted with this policy (although not completely or even erroneously) could adopt themselves more easily with the tactics existing in the clubs of these two countries, though some of the footballers faced problems in this way.

In this way, Iran sent over 20 players to foreign clubs in 1998 and in continuation of this article, we will review their performance.


Immediately after the end of the 1998 France World Cup contests, several proposals by foreign clubs were submitted to Perspolis for hiring Minavand. After negotiations between the manager of the Iranian club with foreign sides, a 3-year revocable contract was signed between Perspolis and Sturm Graz. The figure of the contract was said to be about 600,000 marks.

The presence of Minavand in Sturm Graz brought luck to the team and its 57-year old coach. Because a week later, Sturm won the final of the Austrian Super Cup after defeating Ried (champion of the Austrian/Clubs League). Minavand entered the field at the 60th minute. He played in almost 60 percent of the team's contests in the season. He can be named as one of the most honorable Iranian footballers in Europe because in his first season of presence in Austria, he won three cups along with his team Sturm Graz (super cup of Austria in 1998, Championship of Austrian Clubs 1998-99, and Clubs League in 1998-99). He also played in important contests of European Clubs championship against such teams as Ujpest of Hungary, Real Madrid and Inter Milan.

In the past season and during the League and cup contests, Minavand scored five goals and in unofficial matches 10 goals, the most important of which might be the one scored in the game against Moldavia. If the criteria such as gaining honor at the Asian Soccer Confederation are reliable, then Minavand can be nominated for receiving the Asia 1999 Golden Ball trophy.


After Daie's strong performance, Bielefeld gave him to Bayern Munich at a price four times it had bought him the previous year. Of course Bielefeld was more willing to give him to Kaiserslautern because they had proposed a higher rate. But in the long run, Bayern Munich acted more successfully so that Daie voted to join this club. He joined Bayern Munich at a time when due to tiredness as a result of appearing in numerous games, he was out of form. He even could not appear well in the World Cup contests. In this way, Daie started the season as an striker and successor to Carsten Jancker to play beside Brazil's Elber (the greatest hope of Bayern's strike line).

Another tactical approach Hitzfeld had adopted was the supremacy of Daie in the air strike. At last in the fifth week of the past season's competitions of the Bundesliga, the tall Iranian striker was given the chance to play from the beginning of the game. He responded suitably to the trust and scored three goals against Hamburg, although the referee accepted only two of them. Jancker's poor performance helped Daie to be in Bayern's starting line-up beside Elber, the best player of the team. At this stage, Daie displayed two magnificent appearances against Kaiserslautern and Stuttgart, and like the previous year, scored goals against these rivals. But immediately after obtaining this extraordinary status, he was dispatched to Thailand along with the National Iranian team to attend the Asian games. Although he returned to Germany after gaining the gold medal of the games and scoring another nine goals for the national team, but Jancker, scoring some goals, found the chance to fill Daie's place in the contests until the end of the season. Therefore, Daie again was turned to a player on the bench and appeared in the field merely for several minutes in each game and therefore found less chance to score (except for the renewed match against Kaiserslauthern in which he again scored.)

In the final of the European Champions League, Daie did not appear in the field for even. This was while, just the day before, despite his undeniable competency, the title of the best player of the year in Asia was given to Japan's Nakata, the fixed player of Italy's Porugia. However, Daie was ranked 21st in the classification of the best players in 1998 by FIFA beside George Weah and Alan Shearer and above Oliver Bierhaff, Denilson, Roberto Carlos, Paolo Maldini, David Bechham, Peter Schmeichel, Patrick Kluivert, Didier Deschamp, Gianfranco Zola, Christian Vieri and ...!

Daie was unhappy with being a player on the bench for the all star European team which according to weekly statistics of UEFA was at the top of the list of the best European teams, and maybe for the same reason, positively responded to one of the proposals made by teams such as Kaiserslautern, Hertha Berlin, Munich 1860, and Stuttgart. It should however be remembered that he was in the list of the 18 main or substitute players of Bayern Munich. This is while stars such as Lothar Matthaus, Lizarazo, Kahn, Helmer, Scholl, Basler and Strunz, each were crossed out from the list for a short or long period for different reasons.

Undoubtedly, the presence of Daie in such a team was a great honor which distinguishes him from other Asian players. Maybe it was for this reason that Bayern Munich set the heavy price of 15 million marks for its Iranian striker who scored only six goals in the season, a price which was not paid for transfer of any player in the history of German soccer! At last Bayern accepted to transfer Daie to the newly-flourished team in the capital after receiving half the price.

In the 3-year contract of Hertha Berlin, an annual salary of 2.5 million marks was predicted so that Hertha Berlin would bear a cost of about 15 million marks for employing Daie. Under these conditions, Daie became the most expensive player in the history of Hertha Berlin. In his new team, Daie appeared in the field as a complement of Michael Preetz, member of the national team who obtained the title of best striker of the Bundesliga last season, and scored goals for several times. Hertha Berlin which has been enjoying an extraordinary organization in the past three years has followed a fixed and eye-catching upward trend.


After the fall of the Bielefeld to the second division of the Bundesliga, officials of the team refused to lose Baqeri and arguing that taking a player like Baqeri would cost them several times more than the price they would receive for giving away Baqeri, they made him play in the second division contests.

Displeased with this situation and due to financial disputes with the club, Baqeri started the first weeks of the past season unwillingly and this caused Middendorp to cross him out of the main composition of the team. Middendorp was dismissed after he failed to obtain the results considered by the club and Felix Magath replaced him. Magath, the intelligent halfback of the German soccer played for Hamburg in 1970s and 1980s and his very long golden passes turned him to a prominent player. Since Magath was after absorbing Baqeri to Nuremberg team before joining Arminia Bielefeld. Therefore his presence provided better conditions for Baqeri. After settling financial issues with the club and realizing this point that the second division of the Bundesliga is considered the most powerful second division league in Europe, Baqeri forgot everything and did his best to have a positive presence in the team.

Baqeri gradually overcame his poor performance and displayed a shinning appearance in the Asian games. He then reached an acceptable status in the Bundesliga 2.

After Magath left Bielefeld to join Werder Bremen and Von Hessen (a player who played in the game between the Hamburg team and the National Iranian Team in 1993 against Baqeri and scored the single goal of his team) started his coaching of the team, the situation gradually turned in Baqeri's favor. In this way after watching Baqeri closely at the exercises and the goals he scored, Von Hessen transferred him to the strike line.

Baqeri was also successful in the strike line until Stratos, the Greek last defense and captain of Bielefeld was injured seriously. At that time, Baqeri volunteered to play his post where he appeared extraordinarily in several games. After the return of Stratos, Karim was transferred to the half-way line to prepare kicks for a veteran striker and scorer such as Bruno Labadia who scored 29 goals pulling Bielefeld to the top of the Bundesliga 2. Now Baqeri played in all parts of the field as a helping hand and under these conditions Bielefeld won the tile of the second division of the Bundesliga although Baqeri was away from the field due to his 4-week deprivation and 3-week injury.

When Baqeri's contract with Arminia Bielefeld expired, other clubs voiced readiness to sign contracts with him. George Graham, the veteran head-coach of Tottenham, on the recommendation of Terry Venables, the former coach of British and Australian national teams, proposed to have Baqeri and Azizi. Sensi, the rich president of Italy's Rome Club voiced willingness to transfer Karim and Aston Villa sent another proposal for him. But Karim, extended his contract for another year as a free player and under a new figure. Under these conditions, Baqeri will enjoy a better condition in the transfer market as a key player of a German first division team.


Mansourian was another successful Iranian player in European clubs last year. With respect to the difference in tactical level of European soccer with Iran, Iranian technical players such as Mansourian were not expected to be successful in fast and tough games of European soccer, especially that the individual tactics and kind of play of the Iranian halfbacks and defense considerably differ from the modern soccer of 1990s in the world. But Mansourian, thanks to his intelligence and efforts, overcame the problem and now plays much faster and different from the past.

Mansourian in the past season of Greek competitions was one of the key players but not a fixed player of his team which ranked seventh in the Greek league. At the end of the past season's contests of Greek's first division, proposals were heard from Poak of Salonica, AEK Athens and Panathinaikos as well as one or two Turkish clubs for transfer of Mansourian but none of the proposals except for that of the Turkish club were serious. Mansourian preferred to start the new season with Xanthi. He who performed greatly in the warm-up games of his team is now looking forward to show off in the Greek league and then join a better team.


After Mahdavi Kia's shinning appearance in the World Cup, various invitation letters were sent to him by different European clubs. Bochum and Tottenham showed the greatest willingness to absorb this phenomenon of the year of Asian soccer. At last he was dispatched to Bochum under a 2.5 year contract worth three million marks.

This figure scored a record in the sale of Iranian players abroad. Although China's Dalian club proposed to pay four million dollars for Mahdavi Kia under a 2-year contract.

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