From shock retirement to stunning opponents again – The story of Iran’s Sardar Azmoun

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Fox Sports Asia – AL AIN, Being your country’s leading striker at the FIFA World Cup one day. Shocking the world by retiring from international football at the age of 23 the next! This is the story of Iran’s Sardar Azmoun.

It came as a shocker to the football world when Sardar Azmoun announced his retirement from international football at the age of 23 last June! He had just returned from an unsuccessful campaign with his national team Iran in the biggest sporting event on the planet — the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Azmoun had scored a whopping 23 goals from just 33 appearances for Team Melli then  — including 11 goals from 14 matches in the qualifiers. The youngster from Gonbad-e Kavus in northern Iran was also growing a reputation for himself in Europe playing with Rubin Kazan in Russia.

Starting the World Cup in Russia as Iran’s greatest hope, Azmoun blanked against Spain, Portugal and Morocco in matches where he would have been expected to make a difference.  The result? A disappointing group stage exit for Carlos Queiroz’s men. It could be said that his troubles had much to do with the reputation he head build for himself.

“My mother had overcome a serious illness and I was happy. Unfortunately because of the unkindness of some people, and the insults that me and my team-mates in no way deserved, her illness has become severe. This has put me in a difficult position where I must pick one or the other – and as a result I pick my mother,” Azmoun said announcing his shock retirement.

Azmoun, who was also a decent volleyball player in his childhood, made his international debut for Iran at the age of 19 and within no time, he had gone on to take the fifth spot in country’s all-time top scorers’ list. Parallels with Iran great Ali Daei was already drawn and many expected him to follow on the footsteps of the former Bayern Munich star.

We have young strikers and the future will belong to them, especially Sardar because he’s really young. He can have a bright future. I’m hoping he can choose the right route, that he can go in the right direction for himself and also for our national team.”– Ali Daei, former Iran striker in May 2018

Seeing the damage his absence could do to the national team, Iran’s Portuguese coach Queiroz and captain Masoud Shojaei did their best to convince Azmoun to return to the national camp. It worked as after a four months’ absence, the former FC Rostov man returned to Team Mellitraining last October.

After failing to find the back of Iran since March 2018, Azmoun scored his first for the team in a friendly match against Qatar at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on December 31 and announced he is fully prepared for the AFC Asian Cup 2019 as Iran go in search of a first Asian title in 43 years.

And what a difference he has made to the team. With Iran struggling with injuries to key players including their Premier League attacker Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Azmoun has filled the shoes of the missing stars and is hoping to guide Team Melli to their fourth Asian Cup title come February 1.

In their 5-0 thrashing of Yemen in the opening match of the Asian Cup, Azmoun found the back of the net in the 53rd minute. However, he made an even bigger contribution in the next game against Southeast Asian champions Vietnam opening the scoring in the 38th minute and then doubling the team’s lead in the second half.

He is now the tournament’s top goalscorer with three goals from two matches. Iran are preparing to face Iraq in their final group match of the tournament with qualification already guaranteed, however, the memories of the 2015 Asian Cup will still be fresh in the Iranians’ minds.

Azmoun had opened the scoring for the national team in the quarterfinals in Australia back then, but Iraq fought back and drew the game 3-3 before knocking Iran out in penalty shootouts. Iran looking to avenge the defeat from 2015 when the two teams meet on January 16 will be one of the subplots of Match day 3 of the Asian Cup 2019.

However, the bigger question in the minds of Iran fans will be whether their rejuvenated striker will be finally able to deliver on his promise and bring the Asian Cup trophy back to Iran after a gap of 43 years!

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