April 18, 2024
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PersianFootball.com – EXCLUSIVE,

By: Salar Vafaian

SV: On behalf of PFDC, I’m on the phone to Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Team Melli star and player of Brighton & Hove Albion football club in the English Premier League. Alireza jan, thank you for your time

AJ: Hello Salar jan, hope you’re well, happy to be here and greetings to all the listeners/viewers

SV: Alireza jan, let’s begin with the current situation. What are you doing during the Quarantine, what’s a typical day for Alireza at the moment?

AJ: Just like everyone else who’s stuck in the current situation, I try to keep myself occupied. These are tough times for me as I was used to training 6 days a week which has now changed a lot. Now I’m training at home and my parents are also here with me so I try to make use of my free time and spend as much time as possible with them. I also read and watch TV. This is how I’m keeping myself busy until things go back to normal god willing.

SV: Hopefully these difficult days will pass, we are glad that you’re keeping yourself fit. There have been hundreds of questions, I’ve selected a few of them. We will begin with questions about your club and then talk about Team Melli.

AJ: Please proceed

SV: You were the superstar of AZ and the Eredivisie, topscorer in your last season, 3rd most number of assists which lead to many fans expecting to see you in the highest level of competition in the world of football. I remember Adel asking you about Napoli’s offer on Navad and I remember reading about offers from different teams from Germany, France, Italy as well as Brighton. Brighton was the team we had been hearing about for years but right before you signed for them, rumors spread about Leicester’s last minute bid to hijack the deal. Please tell us, which of these were true and why you opted for Brighton in the end.

AJ: As you said, when I first joined AZ, I always wanted to show myself and move to a better league. After my second season in NEC I had many offers including Brighton (who were competing in the Championship back then) but I decided to move to AZ as they were known to be a very disciplined team in Holland as well as a team who had a very good reputation for producing some great players. My first season was so so, the second season was better and my third was my best season thankfully. Honestly speaking, I had many exciting offers from all over the place, the most serious being from PSV in Holland. AZ management did not allow me to join another team in Holland, they even offered me a better deal to stay but I had already decided to move. There were talks with Napoli, as well as a couple of serious and good offers from German teams whose names I would rather not mention but one of them is always a top 5 team and another is always in the top 10 who has had some Iranians in the past. I always loved to play in the Bundesliga as we had successful Iranians there in the past and I know they view Iranian footballers very positively. I had 2 more years remaining on my contract with AZ and they kept increasing my price which eventually put off a lot of the teams as this was beyond what they could pay. The only country who could afford the asking price was England. Brighton had been following me for years, I had told them 3 years before as a joke when I rejected their offer that I will go to AZ, Improve my game and join you once you’re in the Premier League which actually turned out to be true in the end! Brighton’s offer was great for the club and negotiations were concluding when as you said, Leicester made a serious offer. A lot of people said that I probably chose Brighton as they would pay me more but honestly speaking the offer I had from Leicester was financially much more attractive. I chose Brighton for a few reasons: one was the fact that Brighton’s chairman personally came to Holland to see me and talk to the club whereas Leicester’s didn’t really show as much desire. In Brighton, the head coach really wanted to sign me personally and had been following me closely for years, whereas in Leicester city the Chairman was the one who wanted to sign me and not the coach (he did, however ask that I chat with the coach). The respect Brighton showed me was really appealing to me. I also asked for advice from a lot of my seniors such as Queiroz, Mahdavikia, my father and Mr. Hashemi Moghaddam, my agent. Queiroz told me that in Leicester you will be just another player whereas in Brighton you can be the star. All of the people I spoke to suggested that I join Brighton and this lead to me signing for them in the end. This is how I made my decision.

SV: Many thanks for the detailed explanation. Might be a little early to ask this question but do you not regret joining Brighton?

AJ: Not at all. I had the most difficult half season of my life this year, maybe in AZ, I was injured to begin with and it took me some time to adjust to the team in my first season but luckily I had the same coach in my second season and he knew about my qualities but unfortunately in Brighton, my first season was not great for many different reasons. I’ve always said football has ups and downs but in my first season they were issues that directly impacted my performance. Injuries, the high level of the competition and the fact that I did not really have a pre-season with the team, also the Asian Cup made me lose a couple of months but still that did not compare to this season. I genuinely believe that I had the best training sessions of my life this season and every day my teammates were telling me how surprised they are that I’m not getting a chance to play. Even our captain Dunk used to talk to me a lot and kept telling me to be patient and that your chance will come. Once again, I honestly think I was better than I was even in my last season in AZ and with all honesty I think I probably didn’t train extremely well in only 3 or 4 sessions all season, but with all the difficulties I faced if I could still turn back time knowing I would have to go through all these issues again, I would once again choose Brighton over Leicester. Even people like my father used to criticize me and say you could have made different choices but I kept telling my father, close friends and everyone around me that I have no regrets and would pick them again.

SV: Great stuff. Thanks again. In your first season, Hughton used to play ultra defensively and Jahanbakhsh was always an attacking minded player so in a mind of a fan such as myself, it was quite sensible that it didn’t go as well as planned for you, but with the arrival of Potter whom everyone knew as an attacking minded coach, we all expected you to play more and fit into the team quicker. You also mentioned that you trained very well all season, why do you think it took so long for you to finally get your chance?

AJ: We started the season playing a 5-3-2 formation which we hadn’t used before. There were no wingers in this system and out of us five wingers only one was playing and this is why two of our wingers left, one turned into a right back and one became a striker. This was probably why I didn’t play. He spoke to me at one point and said that he will try me as a right wing-back and I played in that position in training and did well but honestly I’m not the best defender and didn’t really want to play in that position although obviously I would have if he had given me a chance. Once our results dropped, Potter changed the formation to 4-4-2 Diamond where again he was not using any wingers. I told him I can play in other positions and asked him for a chance. Also many people do not know this but we had a few very serious arguments and unfortunately it took a long time for me to get a chance. I was originally supposed to play before the Bournemouth game but he changed his mind.  Luckily after I got my chance against Bournemouth, I proved that I deserved to get my chance earlier in the season.

SV: Thank you. I’m happy you mentioned that there were some “arguments” as a lot of our users on the website always suggested that Alireza is probably too “nice” and if he had a different attitude he could have probably played sooner. You don’t think that’s correct?

AJ: No. I always take my football very seriously, with all the difficulties I’ve faced over the years – being far from my family and friends, all I’ve been through to get to this level,  I wouldn’t let an individual or an organization block my progress or mess with my career. This is what I have worked for years on and I would not let such things get in my way so I can tell you that I was definitely not too “nice” as even my own friends had suggested. But this is what happens in football. What mattered the most was that I got my chance and proved myself on the pitch which luckily to some extent I finally did.

SV: My next question directly relates to this, you got your chance against Bournemouth, scored in the 3rd minute and were one of the best players on the pitch, then against Chelsea, Potter suggested himself that he had considered to start you but since you had not played all season it could have been a little difficult for you and he decided to bring you on as an impact sub. You came on, scored that unbelievable goal, created 3 chances and statistically were the best attacking player on the field but even after that you sort of went back to being a sub. You were part of the matchday squad in all the games from then on but didn’t play as much as you probably should have. What do you think you needed to do to establish yourself as a starting player?

AJ: After that, I played two away games, I came on as a sub on two home matches. This is a question you need to ask the coach. My training level did not drop at all, every other day one of the assistant coaches would come up to me and tell me to carry on with my training levels. The few months that I was not playing, It wasn’t good for me obviously but I learned a lot from those difficult days such as  how to be more patient, work harder to get what you deserve and honestly all of that helped me both as an individual as well as a footballer but it’s always the coach’s decision and honestly I’m not in a position to comment on that.

SV: So there was no personal problem between you and the coach?

AJ: On my behalf most definitely not. I always only spoke to him regarding football and nothing else

SV: In your opinion, if you had not gotten your chance and performed well, would you have left in January? There were a lot of rumors including a loan offer from PSV which was published by some credible Dutch sources.

AJ: Despite not having played much, I had 2 or 3 good offers from good teams in good leagues (again not mentioning names). Even at the peak of not playing at Brighton, I was happy being there and always knew that I would one day get my chance and prove myself and had a feeling that I would get that before January and even if there was a 1 % that I would leave, I wanted to leave on a high note. After playing, the club told me that they would not allow me to leave. I had meetings with the coaches and the CEO who said that they will not let me leave. Even during the time that I was not playing, the club had made it clear that they would not let me leave. I then had some positive meetings with the coach and chairman. The coach sends a training report to the hierarchy every day and despite not playing me, I heard that he was always praising my attitude and performance and saying that I will get my chance. Thankfully, my situation at the club started to improve.

SV: Thank god. Unfortunately this Corona pandemic put a pause on the football. Clearly you are not the coach’s number one player despite your good contribution when you have been on the pitch. If things remain the same, what do you think will happen next season? Will you stay or leave?

AJ: It’s tough to say, I don’t like to predict the future to be honest. Whether I’m here or not, or what my situation will look like,  I do not know and don’ t want to predict or talk about it. I have 3 years left on my contract and everything depends on the club and on myself. All I know is that I will train as well as I can. If the league hadn’t paused, I’m sure I would have featured more. I even think that I was starting against Arsenal in our match that got cancelled, but if I don’t play then anything could happen.

SV: One of our members had suggested that the Premier League does not seem to suit Iranian players. We have had Bagheri, Teymourian, Dejagah and yourself. Bagheri joined Charlton at the peak of his career and hardly played. Teymourian had a few decent games, scored a few goals as well and Dejagah, despite joining from Wolfsburg who we had won the Bundesliga with, it took him time to settle into the team. Even with yourself, expectations were definitely higher. Do you agree with this? If so, what is the reason? Because quality-wise, Iranian players are definitely good.

AJ: I don’t agree at all. One difference between the Premier League and other leagues is that a players’ first impression is extremely crucial as the clubs pay hefty amounts to sign players and in return expect a quick return on investment. For players such as myself who joined from Holland or even players who join from Belgium, Russia or even the Bundesliga, joining a league that is different, faster football, higher quality, more matches  in shorter period of times, It obviously takes time to adapt. Even outside of football, the driving, the weather, the language, everything takes time. But, I don’t agree at all that Iranian’s can not succeed here as I think any player who tries hard and trains well can succeed anywhere. Even for myself at AZ, the first season it took me time to adapt but I eventually progressed and did well. Even here if I had played more last season I could have contributed more this season, but, unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. Things did change for me – I was injured less and training at a high level since pre season, however, the league got paused and now we need to be patient again.

SV: Hopefully once the Corona outbreak is over, I’m sure myself that we will see you on the pitch performing again. Thanks once again for the detailed answers. Now let’s talk about Team Meli. The first question is about Mr. Queiroz – everyone knows he brought you into Team Meli. You were one of our younger guys in the team in the 2014 World Cup and even managed to give Team Meli some good minutes. What is the biggest thing you learned in your time with him? I know there’s probably a lot, but if you had to pick one, what would it be?

AJ: Just as you said, it’s very hard because I’ve always said I’ve learned so much from him about not just football but life in general. If I have to pick though – do everything with bravery, hard work, don’t set limits for yourself, don’t be afraid of anything in your life, dream big – I learned these things from him in different ways. Again it’s very hard to just name one or two things but I’m grateful to have had the chance to work with him. We had him for a long time and I was hopeful we would have him for even longer because Carlos Queiroz had a big impact on Iranian football.

SV: I, as a fan, and many other fans definitely agree with you that we would have loved to see him stay but unfortunately it wasn’t in our hands. Mr. Queiroz left and was succeeded by Mr. Wilmots. At first, he got good results and brought an attacking style to the team but then we lost 2 important matches which you were not a part of. What was Wilmots like and how was it working with him? I don’t think he can be compared to Queiroz but what was Wilmots like in the short time you had with him?

AJ: Wilmots was also a good manager. I was not a part of many camps with him but the few training sessions I was a part of were definitely positive. Perhaps if he had more time he could have shown a bit more, but, I think something that I as a footballer noticed when comparing him to coaches in my various clubs and in Team Meli he definitely had the technical coaching abilities but was not successful in managing a group. After having Queiroz for 8 years we as players were used to a certain managing style and Wilmots was very different from Queiroz in terms of managing a group. We had high expectations on and off the pitch of how things would be and it just wasn’t the same. I think for this reason his time with us was not seen in a positive way due to the situation and poor results. If you look at the team and players it was the same group as before and some players have improved a lot in European leagues at the time Team Meli was playing their matches under him. He tried to change a lot from a tactical standpoint – a bit too fast with his attacking style tactics which we were not used to. Initially it worked in our games with South Korea and Syria, our team had quality, but as time went on and we got into our crucial games vs Iraq and Bahrain we were predictable which was never the case with Queiroz. I think Mr. WIlmots could have done a better job with this transition. When Queiroz looked to change something about Team Meli, such as bringing in younger players, you will notice it was a process that took about a year to year and a half and it paid off with how great we played at the Asian Cup in 2019. I think if WIlmots would have taken his time with bringing in a new style, maybe the outcome would have been different but unfortunately he did not and was not successful.

SV: Unfortunately you’re right but hopefully the future will be better with Mr. Skocic. Last question on WIlmots – under him, you were on the bench or not even in the squad and that is something Mr. Queiroz never did with. The star players were always invited and I even remember there were times Ashkan Dejagah and Ramin Rezaeian didn’t have teams, yet, they were still invited and played. What do you think the reason is Wilmots didn’t invite you? Mehdi Taremi said a few days ago that even being a player who features on the bench of a premier league team is huge. Why do you think you were not included in the last two matches for Iran?

AJ: As I said before, I always respected his decision. At the end of the day he is the head coach of the team and can choose the players he wants. I must say that we definitely did get along well during the times I was invited and at the camps. As an experienced player and one who knows our football well I tried to help him get familiar with our football, culture, and our community as a whole. One camp I wasn’t included as a result of an injury I had picked up unfortunately and the club asked me not to travel to Iran so I could continue my rehab in Brighton. For the second camp, he just simply opted to not invite me which I respect. For Mr. Queiroz, it was important to have European based players even if they were injured or players who were not playing for their clubs be a part of Team Meli in order to be close with their friends and family as well in Iran and return back to Europe feeling more confident so they could then return to the next Team Meli camp even stronger. Mr. WIlmots preferred to have players who were playing well for their clubs – it didn’t matter if it was their first or tenth camp and that’s where he differed (from Queiroz).

SV: For several months we didn’t have a coach in Team Meli. There were many different names being thrown around on who would be appointed and it wound up being Dragan Skocic. A lot of people were surprised by this because in comparison to previous managers his resume is much weaker. What is your opinion on this and are you acquainted with him at all? Have you had any conversations with him?

AJ: In Iran we’re used to surprises. And to be clear I don’t mean this in a bad way – the way it sounded, it was seeming like it would be someone else because the other names were being talked about much more. It’s interesting because I don’t recall him being in the conversation from the beginning. I have to say the way that the decision making process is done for something like this is strange, funny, unbelievable, unprofessional all in one. From a potential standpoint we are number 1 in Asia but from a planning and structural standpoint we are not even in the top 5. All of this aside though, Mr. Skocic has spent several years in Iran and knows our football and culture. He also has decent experience in comparison to other Croatian coaches who have come to Iran over the years. I think we all need to support him – fans and us footballers alike. He came to Team Meli to help us play well and win our upcoming matches. For this reason I must stress this is the time to support him and his staff. I heard Mr. Bagheri will be joining the staff which will be  a fantastic move for us. I saw him (Skocic) in the airport on the way to Europe when I was in Iran a few months ago  and we chatted for a few minutes and had a great conversation about his plans for Team Meli.

SV: That was actually going to be my next question – if you’ve had a conversation with him or not. He went to see some of the boys in Belgium, Russia, Portugal and Croatia. Was he ever scheduled to come see you in England to watch your games?

AJ: Yes, he was on his way to go to Kuwait to watch the Esteghlal match and that he was planning to go to Belgium and Russia. He reached out and said he wanted to come to England as well but for whatever reason he was unable to and said he plans to come in the next few months to watch one of my games.

SV: Just as you said before, the team we had in the 8 years with Queiroz was a team that brought the expectations of the fans a lot higher. Now, we are not so much in the same situation with this unfortunate place we are in with the World Cup Qualifiers. Do you believe in your heart that Team Meli will be able to make it out of this and secure a World Cup berth?

AJ: It’s tough to predict, especially nowadays where so many nations are succeeding and improving. This phase of qualification is our first challenge and it is no easy task. We will certainly work our hardest – this is the same group of hard working, talented, high quality players and thank god they are all doing great with their respective clubs. For this reason I think this team can go to the World Cup and we will do our best.

SV: From the first day you arrived in Brighton your English was great and you learned Dutch very fast as well. How were you able to learn these languages as fast as you did with everything else you have going on?

AJ: When I was 18 years old shortly after the youth Asian Championship I received an offer from Nijmegen. It was more informal and just talks at first but I took it seriously. I was playing for Damash Gilan at the time in Rasht and began working with an English tutor for nearly 2 hours a day. My understanding became very good but speaking was a little tough at first. This was a great start for me to learn the basics until I finally got to Holland. I told myself the only way I can be successful is to be able to communicate with my teammates and coaches so I can execute on what the manager wants. As I spoke to people in English more it got better. My teammates used to make fun of me and tell me it sounded like street talk! It wasn’t until my second or third year though that I was able to speak in Dutch and I did so with my managers and teammates as well in the locker room.

SV: Would you like to learn any other languages?

AJ: I personally like Spanish a lot but I’d like to improve my Dutch first. At the moment I can say I understand the language very well but still can improve on my ability to speak. We have two players from the Netherlands –  Jurgen Locadia and Davy Propper and we all speak to each other in Dutch. But I do like the idea of being able to speak Spanish since there are so many Spanish speaking people wherever you go and also because some of my closest friends in the team like Martin Montoya, Bernardo, and Florin Andone speak it.

SV: What is life in Brighton like? Are you enjoying the city?

AJ: It’s great – I always tell my teammates that the city in which you’re playing your football is very important. I’m extremely happy to be in Brighton – we have the sea, the weather is nice, the people are kind and I’m just very happy here. It’s truly a beautiful city. It’s proximity to London and being just an hour to an hour and a half away is great too.

SV: So what do you like to do in your free time in Brighton? What do your weekends or days off look like usually?

AJ: I like to hang out with my friends, many of which frequently come visit from Holland. We go shopping and eat at restaurants. We sometimes travel to London too since I have some friends there also (like you!). I try to keep myself busy.

SV: I noticed you and a lot of your Team Meli teammates are playing FIFA since the quarantine – without being biased, who would you say is the best?

AJ: I’ll admit I’m personally average or better than that. Saeid Ezatolahi is just a little better than me and is one of the few who can keep up with me and win sometimes!

SV: Are you planning to get married any time soon?

AJ: At the moment I am single. This is of course a big decision for someone to make. With being outside of Iran and with the lifestyle I have at the moment constantly training and focussed on football I find it to be a bit tough. But I won’t hide from the truth, this is something I do think about and if the time and situation is right then I’m sure things will fall into place for me.

SV: What is your favorite food? Pick one Iranian and one non-Iranian option.

AJ: If I have to pick an Iranian dish it’s very tough for me to choose because us Shomali’s are great cooks. My favorites are baghal-e Khoresht and fessenjoon. I know how to make baghal-e khoresht but I messed it up a few times! I also know how to make macaroni. If I put Shomali food aside it would have to be loobia polo, ghormeh sabzi and fessenjoon. As for non-Iranian food I eat everything besides things that have shrimp. There is this one Argentinian restaurant in Brighton that I love – I eat their BBQ chicken and it is delicious! It’s served with rice and some greens, I need to have that meal at least once a week in Brighton.

SV: You’re a great example of someone who went to Europe at 18 and slowly worked his way into the best league in the world. Lots of Iranians debate the topic of why we don’t have more players who can follow in your footsteps and wonder why we don’t have more legionaires – what do you think is the biggest reason a path like yours is not as common? In my opinion I think it’s simple – we don’t have a proper youth system and players get discovered late to the point that teams don’t want to invest in them anymore. That being said, why don’t we have more guys in the top leagues and also if you could say something to young Iranian footballers what would it be?

AJ: I think in the 7-8 years I have been in Europe I have been thinking about this a lot. We don’t see a lot of Iranians at the top levels of football nowadays, before it was a bit different though when we had a bunch of players in the Bundesliga. In recent years that hasn’t been the case. When I came to Europe years ago I wanted to work hard and succeed not just for myself but also to represent Iranians and show that there are more like me ready to show themselves and continue to open up more opportunities. There’s more to it though – sometimes the military service can present a problem and the political climate can present a challenge as well. With this in mind it’s best if our young players look to move at younger ages – guys like me, Sardar Azmoun, and Saeid Ezatolahi were in youth national team tournaments and got opportunities to play abroad as a result of our solid performances during these competitions. We can talk about this subject for hours since there is so much to it.

SV: Before today, had you ever heard the name persianfootball.com? And if you don’t remember, do you recall when you were in Nijmegen a bunch of our website’s members came to your games and practices and got to take photos with you. Do you recall this?

AJ: I do remember some things about it but I can’t say I have followed the website and news it produces. But now that you’re bringing up Nijmegen I do remember some things – a group of people coming to a game with the Iranian flag and if I’m not mistaken they were coming from Germany. If this is the same group I certainly remember. I’ve been very fortunate to have support from Iranians wherever I’ve gone. They’ve always brought me positive energy and I am so appreciative of this. When I succeed they are happy, when I am in tough situations they are not happy such as this time where I wasn’t playing much and needed positive energy and it means so much.

Transcript by: Dara Zarandi

Below you can find the full interview: