SPORT360 – TEHRAN, A footballer leaving his homeland to spend part of his career abroad is not uncommon. The big European leagues are filled with talent from around the globe and each competition is richer for it.
A player leaving the English ranks to test himself in foreign surroundings is not quite as usual, but there has still been a smattering over the years. The likes of David Beckham and Michael Owen – and before them Steve McManaman – answered Real Madrid’s call, while Paul Gascoigne and Robbie Keane both gave Italy a go, just to name a few.
But there is no Premier League footballer that can claim to have been as adventurous in their move abroad as Jlloyd Samuel.
Trinidadian-born and London-raised, Samuel is best known to football fans for the nine-years he spent at Aston Villa before a further four seasons as a Bolton Wanderers employee.
After unsuccessful trials at Leeds United and West Ham, Samuel was left weighing up his options, and it was at that time an offer from FC Esteghlal arrived and a move to the Iranian capital of Tehran beckoned.
Tehran is a city more often associated with political unrest than with its football scene and as such, Samuel was initially hesitant to take on the challenge.
“It started through a friend who knew an agent living over in Tehran,” Samuel tells me when we meet at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Dubai ahead of Esteghlal’s AFC Champions League clash with Al Shabab. “The offer came to me once before and I wasn’t sure whether to go for it or not. At first I put it on the backburner and thought, ‘I can’t go there.’
“I told him to get back to me in the future. I went to a few other clubs, but it didn’t really work out, and thought I would go and have a look, and to be honest it was alright.
“I had done a pre-season with Bolton but I wasn’t by any means match fit,” Samuel says of his arrival at Esteghlal. “I went to a game on the understanding I was just going to watch and check it out. Next thing you know I’m on the pitch and I’ve completed ninety minutes!”
Samuel admits he had “bad images” of Tehran ahead of his initial visit, but he insists all of those concerns disappeared once he arrived in Iran’s capital.
“The things you see on TV and hear about in the news makes you expect certain things; as if you’re about to go into a time warp,” he explains. “But when I arrived it was totally different to what I expected. My preconceptions totally changed.”
Once Samuel decided to give it a go with Esteghlal – initially signing a short-term deal after joining in January 2012 – it meant leaving the family behind, the part of the move that he has found the most challenging.
“The family remained in the UK,” Samuel continues. “It would be a totally different life for them in Tehran. For the first few months I found very difficult as it was the longest time I had been away from them, having always played in England.
“It’s definitely been a different challenge, but it’s something I needed for myself and they (the family) have adapted well to it. Everyone thought I would be home in three months but I’ve done a year-and-a-half.”
Samuel is clearly settling well into Iranian culture, and for a player cocooned in the Premier League world – and all its comforts – for his entire career, it’s refreshing to see him adapting so naturally to such a different environment.
“You get used to a lot of things, but there is always something to surprise you,” the 32-year-old informs me. “Of course, the culture in general is very different to what I was used to back in the UK. But it is something you adjust to and now when other foreign players come and they are surprised by certain things – I can fill them in on what to expect.”
Often the biggest cause of homesickness is the language barrier, but Samuel managed to learn the native tongue startlingly fast.
“I can understand around 60 to 70 percent of the language now, so I’ve picked it up quite quickly. It’s a very difficult language to learn, but when you’re constantly around it, it makes it easier.
“I remember when foreign players would come to England not knowing much English and the playful jokes that were made. Now it was my turn to be on the receiving end so I thought to myself that I better learn it fast!”
So what has Samuel missed the most about England?
“There aren’t so many rules back home,” he responds. “You have a great deal more freedom. I know it might sound something quite small, but even being able to wear shorts out on the streets – especially in the summer when it gets so hot!
“But it’s all part of the culture so I’m not complaining about it; it’s just something to get used to.”
As much as Samuel needed to adapt to his new surroundings, he is in Tehran for one primary reason; to play football.
And ironically, it is the football more than the culture that has left him with the most adjusting to do.
“When I first arrived it was a complete shock,” he explains. “I was playing at the top level for much of my career and when I came here I was expecting a similar standard of…everything.
“But it’s very different; changing rooms, facilities, and pitches – most are very bad. Our home stadium is brilliant, but besides that, there aren’t many great pitches.
“Even things that might sound small, like carrying your own kit to games and looking after your own gear. It makes you more responsible, I suppose.”
While much of Iranian football initially shocked and underwhelmed Samuel, there is one factor that left him truly astonished.
“On derby day our stadium is always full to its 100,000 capacity, I’ve never seen or experienced anything quite like it,” he says. “There’s a blue and red sea in the stands and the atmosphere is unbelievable.
“Similarly after we won the league and were presented with the trophy, the amount of people that came out to celebrate was incredible.”
The Iranian league is a world away from Samuel’s roots of the Premier League, so the arrival of a player who had made over 300 appearances in England’s top-flight must have attracted huge excitement from Esteghlal’s vast number of fans.
“To be honest, the fans were initially sceptical when I arrived,” Samuel says much to my surprise. “They were unsure about why I had gone to Iran, asking why a player from the Premier League would be there.
“I felt there was quite a lot of negative attention at first, but I just viewed that as part of the challenge; to prove myself and show why I had been at the top level for so long.
“Now it’s all changed. I’m one of the most well-liked players at the club and the supporters have really taken to me and give me a great deal of support.”
A change of position has certainly helped Samuel’s cause, which has seen him move from a reliable full-back to an attacking left midfielder. His job is now to provide and score goals rather than keep them at bay.
And it is clearly paying dividends, much to the hindrance of the UAE opposition Esteghlal have faced this season. Samuel scored the crucial opener in their 2-0 victory over Pro League champions Al Ain in the Champions League group stage, while his equaliser against Shabab – the day after we meet – kick-started a 4-2 rout. Following a 0-0 draw in the second leg on Wednesday night, Esteghlal have taken their place in the quarter-finals.
“The change in position has helped me to fall in love with the game again,” Samuel adds. “I’m really enjoying my football here.”
Samuel has proved to be a big success, and is loved by the Esteghlal faithful, but while he is enjoying his time in Tehran, it could all soon be reaching its conclusion. His contract is due to expire at the end of the current season and Samuel admits his future is up in the air at present.
“For me I’m open to options and will see where it takes me,” he says. “I have to keep in mind this Champions League campaign, which I want to be a part of. But who knows what will happen.”
Of course, Esteghlal fans will be hoping their new hero extends his time in the Iranian capital. UAE defences, not so much.