April 16, 2024
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Telegraph.co.uk – LONDON, The January before a World Cup finals is a month of ambition and movement. It is the final chance players get to stake a claim for their respective national teams.

Minutes matter more than glory, time more than honours. Suddenly a player that might have seemed out of reach in the summer becomes a legitimate target. Clubs and players alike roll the dice and take the risk.

Even with such an underwhelming transfer window, one such move went largely unnoticed and under reported, yet its ramifications could have a say on the World Cup hopes of Bosnia, Nigeria, Argentina and, of course, Iran.

Iran’s star striker, 26-year-old Reza Ghoochannejhad, the man who fired Team Melli to Brazil, sealed a dream move to English football. But not to a Premier League club. Instead Gucci – as his huge surname has been abbreviated since he was a child – has found himself parachuted into the middle of the wettest British winter in living memory and a relegation dog fight at second division Charlton Athletic.

Anyone who has watched Iran’s qualifiers might be surprised to see him in English football’s second tier. It was his goal that secured Iran’s passage to the finals, encapsulating his speed and finesse in front of goal.

Iran’s final qualification match was against South Korea, in Korea, possibly the hardest match in Asian football. Uzbekistan, Iran and Korea all had a chance of making it, or finishing third in the play-off spot, something everyone wanted to avoid.

The run up to the game was dominated by a row between Iran’s hot-headed Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz and, well, pretty much the whole Korean nation following a controversial 1-0 win for Iran in Tehran. Korea’s coach pledged to make sure “Coach Queiroz will be watching the Brazil World Cup on TV”. Captain Son Heung-Min went a step further, vowing to make the Portuguese coach “cry tears of blood”.

But it was Gucci who starred in Korea, making the most of a defensive slip to sprint clear and curl in a beautiful left footed shot. Iran won 1-0, topped the group and no tears of blood were shed. Queiroz made an offensive gesture at the South Korean bench and was later pictured smiling for the cameras, a black and white photograph of the Korean coach taped to his chest.

Iran’s Portuguese coach could be forgiven for his happiness. For one, it was Queiroz who had persuaded Gucci to play for Iran in the first place. Although born there, Gucci moved to The Netherlands as a young boy. He grew up in Holland, learning to play the violin before concentrating on football and coming through at Heerenveen before ending up at Standard Liege in Belgium.

His talent was spotted at a young age. He played for the Dutch U16, 17,18 and 19 national sides. “It was a very easy choice to switch,” he said in a recent Daily Mail interview. “I was raised with both cultures but deep in my heart there is also Iranian pride.”

Asian football gets a bad rap in the British and European press, a shorthand for the evils of the money and marketing power of the new globalised game. But consider this: Whilst England topped an easy group, sprinting past San Marino, Moldova and Montenegro along the way, Asian qualification is an endurance marathon.

The first round of qualification began in June 2011 and didn’t finish until November 2013. The distances travelled are huge (any away trip to North and South Korea and Japan, for example) and there is always at least one, energy sapping tie fizzing with geopolitical spite, especially any time Iran travels to the Arab world.

“The qualification campaign was a journey through hell,” Queiroz would later say in an interview with Fifa.com. “But now begins the journey through heaven.”

Hell. Torture. Call it what you like, but Iran emerged from Asian qualification top of their group largely thanks to Queiroz’s hunch. After a slow start, Gucci scored in Iran’s last three World Cup matches, including the decisive goals against Qatar and Korea.

It has again been something of a slow start at Charlton. He hasn’t scored yet but Charlton’s form has picked up and they are now in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. In June, Gucci will be lining up against the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko. Every minute Gucci plays in the Championship will be crucial if Iran hope to make to the second round for the first time in their history. Only then will Gucci, Charlton and the Iranian nation know if the gamble has paid off.