AFC Quarterly – KUALA LUMPUR, Two years after Islamic Republic of Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz tipped him for the top, Sardar Azmoun is creating waves against the best teams in the world in the UEFA Champions League and steering Iran to pole position in their group in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals in Russia.
Deep in the bowels of Tehran’s imposing Azadi Stadium, the smile on Sardar Azmoun’s face expresses more than words could ever muster. “You see,” he says with the broadest of grins, “I won. I told you!” It is a bold statement at the end of Islamic Republic of Iran’s most important game of the year but, just as Team Melli prevailed against Korea Republic in the nations’ crucial qualifier for the FIFA World Cup finals, so Azmoun had triumphed in his own personal battle. Twenty-four hours before, the FC Rostov forward had distilled the meeting between two of Asia’s strongest teams into the simplest of equations: him versus Son Heung-min, the high-flying star of Tottenham Hotspur and the Koreans’ talismanic winger.
“It is me against the No. 7,” Azmoun had said the night before the game. “And I will be the best.” True to his word, Azmoun outshone the former SV Hamburg and Bayer Leverkusen forward. Son was stifled – like the entire Korea Republic team – finishing the 90 minutes without a shot on target. By contrast, Azmoun claimed the game’s only goal with an accomplished finish from inside the area, moving Iran another step closer to a fifth appearance on the game’s greatest stage. At the time, it was an important goal but, in the context of his continuing rise, that strike was another example of Azmoun’s unquestionable talent. With some of the biggest clubs in the European game now tracking his every move, he could soon be about to show the wider world just how good he has become.
Not that the attention will faze the precociously talented striker. Since announcing his arrival on the Asian football scene in Australia two years ago, Azmoun has proven that confidence and assuredness are characteristics he possesses in abundance. The murmurs and rumblings that had been steadily building in the 18 months prior to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup turned into the loudest of roars at Sydney’s Stadium Australia when Azmoun scored the goal that woke up the rest of the continent to his ability. It came against Qatar in the group stages of the continental championship and, after Andranik Teymourian stole possession deep inside the Qatari half, Ashkan Dejagha sent a low cross in the direction of Azmoun. In an instant, the youngster had pirouetted past the defence, back-heeling the ball towards goal before prodding his shot beyond the goalkeeper. It was an audacious moment of skill and perception that marked Azmoun out as a remarkable talent. “Brilliant goal, it was a special movement of the centre forward to make a great turn at the level of some of the best centre-forwards I have worked with in my life, like Ruud van Nistelrooy,” said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz after the game. “It was a brilliant goal. “I think we knew that we should try those turns and we should try to attack the space behind, but the way he moved the ball for a young player, he has a great future in front of him.” Queiroz, of course, is no stranger to the best players in the world. Having worked with van Nistelrooy during his time as assistant coach to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United before becoming head coach at Real Madrid and leading the Portugal national side, the opinions of the well-travelled tactician carry significant weight. And that is a fact not lost on Azmoun. “Of course, those kind of comparisons make my duties and my responsibilities a lot more difficult,” says Azmoun. “When a big coach like Carlos Queiroz, our coach, when he compares a young player like me in an official press conference to Ruud van Nistelrooy then of course, it’s a great privilege.
“Carlos worked with Van Nistelrooy, so he Above AFC Asian Cup 2015 knows his abilities and he knows my abilities, so that was a great honour for me. “We have many great strikers at the minute, like Karim Ansarifard and Reza Ghoochannejhad. All these players, the current crop of strikers, are all fine players but perhaps some of them haven’t shone as much as they can and haven’t shown their full potential. “We can’t forget that Iran is a big country with 80 million people and there is a lot of potential, a lot of brilliant talent in Iran and I believe we can have good strikers, and good footballers altogether, in Iran.” With 16 goals in 22 appearances since breaking into Team Melli back in May 2014, Azmoun is leading the way for the next generation of Iranian forwards, following in the footsteps of legends such as Ali Daei and Vahid Hashemian. Daei’s record of 109 goals for the national team is already being talked about in some quarters as an achievable target for Azmoun, but the 21-year-old – he celebrates his 22nd birthday on January 1 – contests such landmarks have yet to enter his mind. “I really haven’t thought about this kind of thing,” he says. “What I try to concentrate on and be determined to do is to make sure I do my best for the national team, and when I’m playing for the national team I give my best performance inside the pitch so that I can serve my nation as best as can. “Ali Daei has the highest number of national team goals in the world, so that record belongs to an Iranian guy, so if he holds it or I hold it, it doesn’t make a difference. He comes from Iran and he makes us all proud and I’m very proud of that. “He was my hero when I was a kid. If Ali Daei had been born in another country they would have made a statue of his legs and put it in the middle of the city because he has achieved so much. I met him and have trained with him a couple of times. We know each other, but we haven’t really talked to each other too much.” Daei – still widely regarded as Iran’s greatest ever player – was a late bloomer, making his move to Europe at the age of 28 before becoming the first Asian player to score in the UEFA Champions League when he netted twice for Hertha Berlin against Chelsea following earlier stints with Arminia Bielefeld and Bayern Munich. Azmoun, by contrast, made his move to Europe at the age of just 17, joining Rubin Kazan in Russia from Sepahan before signing for FC Rostov in the summer after a stint on loan at the club and making his debut in the UEFA Champions League at the start of the current campaign.
Leaving Iran at such an early stage of his career brought with it significant challenges, and the support of his family was key to Azmoun kicking off the next phase of life as a footballer. “It was extremely difficult for me being away from my family at the age of 17,” he says. “I actually couldn’t handle it and after one week I called my family and I said: ‘You guys have to come here and stay with me’. “It was very difficult. But it’s a completely different level for playing. It was a lot more professional: my sleeping patterns, my routine, everything, was in a completely different way, but I’m very happy I moved to Rubin Kazan when I was 17. “For me coming from a sporting family – my father is a volleyball coach and was a player – so that really helped me. All of my family members, my mum, my sister, they all came to Kazan and really supported me. Of course, family is the most valuable thing and having a family like mine has helped. They really understand sport and they also helped me to improve in certain aspects of my career. It’s really helped a lot.
“My father has undergone a lot of difficulties in volleyball, especially in the city that we’re from, Gonbad-e-Kavus. It’s completely focused on volleyball. My father didn’t achieve to the extent that he deserved, so he always wanted me to become a football player. It was his dream, his desire for me to become a football player, so I got into football. “Now, everything is good for me. I made a promise to my dad and I’m really hopeful and optimistic that I can fulfil that promise. I can’t reveal the promise,” he says with a smile, “but it’s an extremely difficult promise to achieve. If I tell you now and I can’t achieve it, then I’m going to be embarrassed! If I achieve it, I’ll tell you what it was.” The current season has taken Azmoun to a higher level, and the forward has responded in impressive fashion. Two goals in the preliminary rounds of the UEFA Champions League – against Anderlecht and Ajax Amsterdam – were followed by eye catching strikes against Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich in the group phase of the competition that have intensified speculation over his future. Former European champions Liverpool have been linked with a move to sign the forward, as have Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, and the speculation is welcomed by a player keen to test himself against the finest players in the best leagues within the game. “This season is my first time playing in the UEFA Champions League, although I had played in the Europa League before,” he says. “But the Champions League is at a completely different level. For me, it’s been a great experience and I’m looking forward to proving myself again and perhaps some bigger clubs in Europe will see my performances and it will be great for me, especially at this stage of my career. “I still believe I can improve more and progress more. I don’t think I have achieved all that I can achieve. If I had made some better decisions perhaps I’d be in a better place than I am now, but I still have a long way to go and I’m always trying to develop and progress and get better and better every day and hopefully I can achieve a lot more in the future.”
In addition to his exploits at club level, Azmoun has his sights set firmly on bringing success to the Iran national team as the country continues to look for a way to end a disappointing run at continental level without a major title. Despite making his debut for Team Melli in the build-up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup finals in Brazil, Azmoun was not included in Queiroz’s final 23-man squad for the trip to Brazil, where the Iranians faced off against Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two defeats, including a narrow loss against the Argentinians thanks to a late winner from Lionel Messi, and a draw – against the Nigerians – saw Iran leave Brazil at the conclusion of the group stages with their heads held high. Their performances in Brazil, coupled with the retention of Queiroz as coach, saw Iran go to the Asian Cup amongst the favourites, only for Team Melli to slip up in a penalty shoot-out at the end of a thrilling encounter with Iraq in Canberra in the quarter-finals, extending the country’s drought in the continental championship to more than 40 years. “One thing I need to say is that we were unlucky in the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia,” says Azmoun. “We really had a good team, and at the moment we have a great team with many, many great players. We have different options for each position, so we have a team with a lot of capacity to grow and a lot of room to prove ourselves in different competitions. “But we are hopeful we will qualify for the World Cup with this great team and also with our great coach. We hope we can go to the second round at the World Cup and we think we can win the Asian Cup. We deserve it. We have been the number one Asian team in the FIFA rankings for a long time now and even if you look at the current players who are playing in Europe, there is an increasing number of Iranians in different European leagues, which is of course, a great achievement for Iranian football.” The European influence on the Iran national team has been growing in recent years, with Azmoun joined at FC Rostov and in the national team by Saeid Ezatolahi, a midfielder in the mould of Iranian legend Javad Nekounam, while full-back Milad Mohammadi signed earlier this year for another Russian side, Terek Grozny. Alireza Jahanbakhsh, meanwhile, plies his trade with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar while others, such as Ansarifard and Ghoochannejhad as well as veterans like Masoud Shojaei, are dotted elsewhere around Europe, bringing an added level of professionalism to the squad. It is with that in mind that Azmoun is confident Iran can go on to not only qualify for the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018 but that the current generation within Team Melli – and with Queiroz at the helm – can finally succeed where the likes of Daei, Nekounam and others fell short. “There’s no doubt that with coach Queiroz, one aspect of his personality is that he does not like losing,” says Azmoun. “He hates it. He’s got that winning mentality. He loves winning and he does his best and he tries to get his team to do their best to win. “We have achieved a lot over the last few years, we’re now the best Asian team in the FIFA rankings and also our results speak for themselves. But unfortunately, there has not been enough proper support for coach Queiroz. There have been a lot of people that don’t really want the national team to achieve good results. “But we’re hopeful that, if the team is properly supported and under the leadership of coach Queiroz, we can keep going strong and qualify for the World Cup.” And there can be little doubt it will be Azmoun who will be leading the charge to Russia for Iran.