Iran's Ali Daei shot into the limelight just before 1998 World Cup finals in France when it was announced that he would leave Arminia Bielefeld to join Bayern Munich in a dream move worth four million deutschemarks.
Even from two-thirds of the way up the main stand in Munich's Olympic Stadium, the frustration that Ali Daei is suffering is painfully obvious to anyone in the 56,000 crowd who cares to tear their view away from Bayern Munich's latest assault on the Champions' League and look towards the dug-outs.
There he stands on the sidelines, hands placed impatiently on hips, watching and waiting as Bayern's frontline waste chance after chance to kill off the threat of Spanish champions Barcelona and march further down the road to European glory, a route the club last completed some 23 years ago.
First it's midfielder Michael Tarnat who has his shot blocked by Barcelona keeper Ruud Hesp. Then Brazilian Giovane Elber, the club's summer signing from Stuttgart and their top scorer so far this season, and Thorsten Fink let simple chances go to waste.
Bayern's profligacy continues as Elber, Fink and Tarnat all fail to take their opportunities. Despite wave after wave of German attack, Barcelona manage to hang on for most of the first half as the Bayern midfield destroy the Spanish side's porous defence. The cavernous Olympic Stadium groans as Bayern spurn as many as nine goalscoring opportunities, and it looks like the half will end level.
However, midfielder Stefan Effenberg, Bayern's controversial veteran play-maker, eventually comes to the rescue, tapping home Elber's knock-down with virtually the last kick of the opening 45 minutes. Bayern Munich stroll off the pitch as the half-time whistle goes, 1-0 up but having failed to kill a game they were in complete charge of.
Barcelona start the second half looking like a different team as the Brazilian pairing of Rivaldo and Sonny Anderson come into their own. The Catalan club's midfield are dictating the pace of the game as Bayern coach Ottmar Hitzfeld signals for his subs to warm up. Barcelona are now in control and Bayern's slender one goal lead is looking dangerously fragile. Those nine missed chances before the breakthrough are beginning to look potentially costly.
Bayern manage to hold on as Hitzfeld prepares to play his first card. It looks like defender Thomas Linke will replace Markus Babbel in what would essentially be a straight swap. The clock ticks on, however, and as Bayern continue to hold out, the former Borussia Dortmund coach holds off on making the change.
Hitzfeld eventually makes the switch, although now striker Alexander Zickler has joined Linke on the touch-line to replace Salihamidzic. That's two down, one to go on the substitution front for Bayern. But there's still one card left to play and Daei waits to see if his services are required. With just over 10 minutes remaining, however, it looks like the Iranian striker will remain 'a spectator - unless Barcelona can finally produce a goal from somewhere.
By now we're inside the last seven minutes and Elber has missed another chance. Minutes later Barcelona go close to an equaliser when Sonny Anderson's effort hits the top of the crossbar. Bayern are surviving by the skin of their teeth.
Finally, Carsten Jancker strips off his tracksuit bottoms as Daei returns to his seat. Hitzfeld has decided that the Iranian international will take no part in what turns out to be a famous win for the Munich side. Elber comes off and Jancker takes his place. Three minutes later the final whistle is sounded and Bayern Munich have three invaluable Champions' League points in the bag.
The following morning the Bayern clubhouse is besieged by jubilant fans as the players arrive for training as normal. On the pitch the team are put through a light work out for just over an hour before they trudge off home.
Last to leave the field is Daei, his square-shouldered, swimmer-like frame bearing down on Hitzfeld as the two remain on the field alone. From a distance it's obvious the coach is on the defensive and Daei, not a man to be argued with, is clearly less than happy. Hitzfeld holds his hands out in an almost pleading manner.
Although well out of ear-shot, you can sense him telling the 29year-old that he has to be patient, that his time will come. The conversation ends abruptly and both parties go their separate ways, Daei to the clubhouse and Hitzfeld to the waiting fans, where he signs more autographs than most of his squad combined.
Daei emerges soon after and is mobbed by the fans that the likes of Bassler and Mehmet Scholl have completely ignored. Not so for Daei. He may not seem to be in the best of moods but he still takes time to give the fans the little attention they want. Magazines, posters, t-shirts. Everything is signed and Daei makes sure everyone is happy before setting off for the city centre and lunch in one of Munich's many Persian restaurants.
As a home away from home, Munich is perfect for someone like Ali Daei. The city boasts a Persian population of around 5,000 while there are estimated to be as many as 200,000 Iranians living and working in Germany. It seems life in the Bundesliga has become like a second home for Daei and the other Iranians playing in Germany.
On the way to lunch the conversation touches on a plethora of topics within Daei's footballing life. Of how he missed out on a move to the J.League several years ago due to military service, the same reason Mehdi Mahdavikia was denied a move to the English Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur. He sympathises with his young compatriot but concedes that this is how life is in Iran.
Daei on the bench flanked by Peyrovani & Bagheri.
He talks of his recent return to Tehran for the national team's 3-0 defeat at the hands of Kuwait, but excuses the result by stressing that Iran fielded an experimental side almost entirely of young players. One in particular stood out, Pirouzi's 21-year-old midfielder Ali Karimi, a player Daei stresses possesses all the quality and industry of Karim Bagheri but with more skill and guile.
He calls Valdir 'Badu' Vieira, the man who guided Iran to the World Cup finals, a "good man" and regrets the demise of his successor Tomislav Ivic ("he was a big name coach - he was what we needed.").
After eventually finding somewhere to park on one of Munich's many quaint side streets, we see the entrance of the restaurant, betrayed only by the small canopy hanging over the doorway at the top of a flight of stairs that descend into a dimly lit cavern. Its interior is reminiscent of a typical underground eatery in Tehran with its white plastered walls, dark wooden furniture and low lighting.
Unlike the lighting, Daei has lightened up since his encounter with Hitzfeld. He greets the staff like the friends they undoubtedly are and talks in his mother tongue of Farsi with a family group already in the restaurant. Despite the change in his mood, Daei is still annoyed by the previous evening's events.
"It's not very frustrating if someone is playing better than me, but if they are playing and not doing well, of course, it's very frustrating," he says with a look that almost begs for sympathy on his moustachioed face. "For example, I didn't play because of the system that the coach was playing (last night) but I always try my best and I'm sure that I would play from the beginning in two weeks or in two months'time. If I'm given more chances I have to be sure to take them. It's been difficult to adjust to the new system here but I just need some time."
It's hard not to have sympathy for Daei. Known as one of the finest strikers in the history of the Asian game, his record speaks for itself. He's scored 38 goals in 56 matches for the national side, including an unforgettable four-goal haul against Korea Republic in the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup two years ago.
He scored seven times for relegation-cloomed Arminia Bielefeld last year in a season that was disrupted by Iran's World Cup qualifying schedule, which saw Daei miss most of the first half of the Bundesliga season. And although he had a quiet World Cup by his standards, failing to score in any of Iran's three group matches, the experience gained against the likes of Yugoslavia and Germany will have stood him in good stead as he reaches the peak of his career.
Yet since his four million deutschemark move from Arminia Bielefeld to the three-time European Cup winners, Daei has rarely started a league match. In his one start prior to the Barcelona game, Daei scored twice against Wolfsburg, only to be dropped for the following game as Carsten Jancker returned from duty with the German national team.
Despite his lack of playing time, Daei refuses to be downhearted. He was almost hand picked for the club by Bayern's legendary president Franz Beckenbauer, who rated him as a world class centre-forward in the weeks prior to the transfer. Clearly Daei is loved by the fans. Daei, in return, loves the city and is enjoying his time at one of the world's greatest clubs.
The move also saw Daei become the first Asian player to feature in a Champions' League match (he came on as a substitute in the Munich side's 2-2 draw with Manchester United), but has added to the pressure heaped on his shoulders by the Iranian people. In Tehran they see this move as a sign that Iranian players can play for the world's top clubs. They expect Daei to rise to the occasion.
It's the type of pressure that Daei has had to live with for a long time. He's seen in many quarters of the Iranian game as the successor to the great Ali Parvin, the famous Piruzi striker who led the nation to their first World Cup finals in Argentina in 1978.
"It's very difficult for me to be compared to All Parvin," he says of the comparison. Daei, like Parvin, played for several seasons with the Tehran giants and the former Piruzi captain still holds the record as the most capped player in Iranian history. "The people expect me to be the best all the time, but on the other hand it's a great honour to be compared to him. I love my people and I want to give my best for them because everything I do is for them.
"If anything, I'm under more pressure here because I play for one of the best teams in the world and the 60 million people in Iran are watching me and they are expecting me to score and play well in every game. So there's a lot of pressure.
"Going to Arminia Bielefeld was a start for me in the Bundesliga and I always wanted to go to one of the best teams in the league after that. I only wanted to be there for a year and then move on to a higher level club."
Daei's talents have not gone unnoticed - now and in the past. When Jubilo failed to sign him four years ago, clubs from England and the Bunclesliga were said to be interested. Last season's title winners Kaiserslauten were amongst them, and this season there has been renewed interest in the big striker.
Despite having signed a threeyear contract with the Munich club, Daei has attracted the attention of Hertha Berlin, the club that inflicted the first league defeat of the season on Bayern in November. The Iranian is fully aware of the task that lies ahead of him if he wants to secure a place in the starting lineup.
"It's very important to remember that Bayern Munich have 15 international players and every one is trying his best," he says of the competition for places. "Every day in our training matches it is like coming up against one of the top sides in the Bunclesliga. Things are very intense at this club."
And what does he say of the demands of playing at the highest level for a club of Bayern's stature, with a European legacy that was laid down in the mid-70s when the Beckenbauer-led side won the European Cup three times in a row?
"Naturally, if you play against someone like Arminia Bielefeld it's much easier than if we play against Manchester United," he says of his brief experience of playing in the Champions' League. "What I need is just to practice more with the team. Every day I train hard and the coach is happy with me. All I need is a chance in just one or two games. I've been on the bench but I'm fighting against them all to play from the start. I'm sure of myself and that's why I came here. I didn't come here to sit on the bench."
To underline that fact, to both coach Hitzfeld and the watching world, Daei scored the Saturday after our chat to take his Bayern goal tally to three. Several weeks later he was on target again as Bayern continued to dominate the championship as the programme headed for the winter break.
But Daei knew he wouldn't have the luxury of sitting around recuperating. He was going to be heading to Thailand for the Asian Games as Iran tried to emulate their 1990 Beijing gold medal success. After the team's performances in France and their high profile win over the USA, the game is enjoying an even higher status within the football-mad country than before.
"After the USA game everyone knew that it meant more than just a football match," he says of the 2-1 triumph in Lyon. "The people expected us to win the game and our happiness after the game was for the people. It means a lot to us to play for the people. Every game for the national team is for the people and not for ourselves.
"Now we have to take more care of our football. The young people are more interested in football now. if you go back 20 years Iran were the best team in Asia and now we are getting back to that level, and that's helped by the interest of the young people in the game."
Daei, of course, is the figurehead of all that has been positive about Iranian football over the last four years. But he's not the only one currently plying his trade in Europe. Former Asian Player of the Year Khodadad Azizi is with Cologne (although according to Daei, Azizi is less than happy and is looking to leave the Second Division side), Karim Bagheri is still with Arminia Bielefeld, while young defender Mehdi Pashazadeh is with Bayern's nearest rivals, Bayer Laverkusen. Iran's European contingent in completed by midfielder Mehrdad Minavand, who is with Austrian side Sturm Graz.
"It's very important for a lot of Iranians to be playing in Europe," says Daei of the continuing trend. "And there are lots of Iranian players who are good enough to play in Europe. It's good for Iran because the standard continues to go up.
"There's a big difference for the Iranian players who are playing in Europe to playing at home but I'm still playing for Iran, as are the others. Everything we do is for the people of Iran."
With that he takes a quick glance at his watch, calls for the bill and prepares to drive back into town. A German lesson is the next appointment for Daei, who has been surviving for the last year on English. Not only has playing in Germany enhanced Daei's playing ability, it has sharpened his command of his second language and now he's hoping to do the same with the local language.
"It's my first lesson," he says with a wry grin. "Most people here speak English, but I have to try." Now, though, it's to his mother tongue that he returns as we prepare to climb out of the restaurant. Yet more people stop him for a chat and Daei, once again, obliges. It's a wonder he achieves anything the number of times he stops to talk to people.
But therein lies the charm of Ali Daei. Frustrated he may be, driven towards having himself accepted in Munich as he is at home, but always taking time out to shake hands, sign autographs and kiss babies. Maybe one day Ali Daei, Iran's greatest ever football export, will be the man to lead Iranian football from the sidelines or maybe even from more lofty reaches. For now, though, he's doing it on the field and no-one could be doing a better job than Iran's football ambassador.
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