FIFA – NEW DELHI, Figures tend to play an important role in football, but for Mohammad Sharifi, one number stands out above all the rest: 16. That is the number that brought him a significant amount of luck in 2016, which ended up being an exceptional year for the young Iranian.
One month before making his first senior appearance for Esteghlal Khuzestan in an Iranian League match against Mashhad, the then 16-year-old helped Iran to reach the final of the AFC U-16 Championship in India, securing a berth at the FIFA U-17 World Cup – which will also be held in India – in the process.
“For any player, making your professional debut is a huge moment,” he said in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. “I’ll never forget that day. I was so happy that the coach placed his trust in me. When I first started playing football, I set myself some major targets, and they’re still there in my mind. I’ve had to work really hard to gain this success.”
A few months later, Sharifi was again in the headlines, when he became the youngest Iranian footballer to participate in an AFC Champions League match, coming off the substitutes’ bench during his club’s 1-1 draw with Qatari side Lekhwiya, just nine days before his 17th birthday.
“It was great to become the youngest Iranian to play in that tournament,” said the precocious midfielder. “For me, though, continuity, development and the right skills are more important than numbers.”
Memories and ambitions
Sharifi will have another chance to make a name for himself in October, when he and his compatriots will return to India to defend the colours of Iran at the U-17 World Cup, in what will be his nation’s fourth appearance at the tournament.
“The AFC U-16 Championship went very well for us in India,” he explained. “We ended up second and qualified for the U-17 World Cup. And from a personal point of view, I played really well there.”
Not only will Sharifi and Co be returning to India, but they will be staying in the same town (Margao, in the state of Goa) and playing in the same arena (Fatorda Stadium) as last year. Their opponents will be different, of course: this time around, they will face Germany, Costa Rica and Guinea.
“The fact that we’re going back to India, and Goa in particular, is really good news for us,” continued Sharifi. “It brings back a lot of great memories. We’re happy to be representing Asia at the tournament, which is itself being held in an Asian country.
“It’s great that we’re returning to a stadium that we’re familiar with, but we have to rely on the quality of our players, rather than blind luck. That said, I hope that the venue does bring us a bit of good fortune and that we get the results we need to advance.”
With two months to go until the prestigious tournament kicks off, Sharifi, who is known for accurately placing penalty kicks in a manner similar to Steven Gerrard, was keen to reiterate his side’s aims. “It’s important that we succeed as a team and perform as best we can. I’m happy because India 2017 represents a great opportunity for me and all the other players to stand out and catch the eye of European teams.”
If Sharifi manages to emerge from the competition with a winners’ medal around his neck, then 17 may well replace 16 as his favourite number.
*Mohammad Sharifi made his professional debut at the tender age of 16
*Recently became the youngest-ever Iranian to compete in the AFC Champions League
*During the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Iran will return to Margao, where Sharifi played last year during the AFC U-16 Championship