Iranian hero with eye for goal

 

With a goal in every other game Ali Daei's strike rate puts Niall Quinn's in the shade and in Iran he's regarded by many as the best footballer the country has ever produced.

But Saturday's visit to Lansdowne Road will present Daei with his biggest test on the international stage since the World Cup in France and a first real examination of the former Asian Player of the Year since his supposedly dream move to Bayern Munich marked a derailing of the 32-year-old's once glittering club career.

At home he remains a hero. The goals have continued to flow on the international stage while few doubt that his failure to make a sustained impact on the Bundesliga is down to anything more than the folly of others.

As the Iranians arrive in Dublin this morning, though, manager Miroslav Blazevic knows that the question of whether Daei still has the ability to unlock what has turned out to be one of Europe's most consistent defences is crucial to their chances of reaching next summer's World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea.

He seems to be in little doubt about his side's chances, insisting that, "if the players play to their full potential I have no doubt we can beat Ireland. We have played well in the past against European teams. Two years ago we drew with Denmark in Copenhagen and recently we beat Slovakia 4-3 so I think that Ireland are beatable."

Since Daei made his international debut eight years ago, however, it has been his goals that have been central to the national team's progress on the world scene.

In the build up to France, he seemed to be at his peak, scoring regularly not only for his country but also for Arminia Bielefeld, the club which had been widely reckoned to be taking a massive gamble by recruiting an Iranian to play in top flight German football.

"It was seen as extraordinary by people to sign somebody from Iran," says Ronnie Reng of the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, "and people certainly wondered whether he would make it.

"His style was also an issue because it is very much that of an English striker because he can play with his back to goal and hold defenders off with his shoulders in the way that you often see in the Premiership but this wasn't so common in Germany and so his success came to many as a surprise."

Such was his impact, in fact, that Bayern Munich stepped in to sign him. But the move never really worked out as the player struggled to make an impact in a side that would later that season come within a whisker of lifting the Champions League trophy in Barcelona.

Given the number of stars competing for places at Munich, of course, there was little shame in his failure to make more of an impact. However, the extent to which he was marginalised did come as something of a surprise and only once during his time at the Olympic Stadium did he really recapture the public gaze, when he declined on religious grounds, with the agreement of the club, to pose for a team photo holding a glass of beer as part of a promotion for Bayern's sponsors Erdinger.

The subsequent move to Hertha Berlin, who had just qualified for the Champions League looked like a promising one but there too he has drifted to the periphery and the club's subsequent signing of two Brazilian strikers has fuelled reports that he will move on during the summer. Iran's qualification for the World Cup would be a welcome boost to any contract negotiations.

While he maintains that Iran have the players to achieve that goal he admits that the side's ability to work together as a unit remains a regular stumbling block.

"We are the number one team in Asia if you consider talent and skill," he says. "Our weakness has been in team work. I'd say we were ranked seventh or eighth in that respect. It is a problem that is in our blood because we are strong in individual sports like wrestling, judo and weightlifting but never the best in team sports."

Another problem, he points out, is the dismal state of the facilities used by most of the clubs in Iran where even the leading two don't have proper training grounds.

"None of our clubs have facilities to match even those of lower level European sides. We also need good management, supervision and long-term plans to succeed. The reality is that I could name a thousand more needs and we need to work very hard."

He plans to return home at some stage and contribute to the game's development and there should be no shortage of clubs anxious to offer him a job in management after a spell at what he hopes will be his last European club.

His longer-term future may be in the business side of the game, however, which is an area he has already made an impressive if somewhat controversial mark.

With eight of the country's top flight teams as well as the national team wearing kit supplied by his sportswear company, some have questioned how healthy the extent of his influence is.

If he can lead his country past Ireland and into another World Cup finals, of course, few back home are likely to bother about the commercial activities, for his real business, for the moment, is still conducted on the football pitch.