Jahanbakhsh: Iran are determined to reach the knockout phase

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Fifa+ – ROTTERDAM, Alireza Jahanbakhsh is set for a third consecutive FIFA World Cup appearance with Iran. The former Brighton forward is excited to face familiar England names in Qatar 2022. Jahanbakhsh discussed Iran’s FIFA World Cup ambitions with FIFA+.

As thousands of Iranians poured on to the streets across the nation to celebrate a famous victory over USA at France 1998, four-year-old Alireza Jahanbakhsh wasn’t fully aware of just how much the FIFA World Cup™ means. Twenty-four years later, however, as he prepares to lead out Team Melli in an identical occasion, the memories of that collective joy still live with him.

It is a joy he first experienced a few months earlier as IR Iran, led by legends like Karim Bagheri, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Daei, returned to the World Cup after a 20-year absence. The West Asians needed a play-off against Australia, and it was a late Khodadad Azizi strike at Melbourne Cricket Ground that sent them through on away goals.

“My earliest World Cup memory was actually our crazy qualification for France 1998 against Australia,” said the Feyenoord attacker told FIFA+. “The World Cup that I was old enough to grasp all the details of football was the 2002 World Cup, and that’s when I started loving Ronaldo. ‘O Fenômeno’ was my earliest footballing idol. I loved watching him especially in 2002.”

From watching Ronaldo on television, young Jahanbakhsh’s career took a drastic turn just before his 20th birthday. The forward, then playing his football for domestic minnows Damash Gilan, impressed playing for the Iran U-19s and was fortunate to be spotted by a Dutch scout named Carlos Aalbers, at the time working for provincial side NEC Nijmegen, who snapped him up in 2013.

Nijmegen would prove to be just the first step in a blossoming career in the Netherlands, which became a second home for Jahanbakhsh, who went on to represent the likes of AZ and Feyenoord. With the former, he became the first Asian player to finish as top scorer in a major European league, bagging 21 goals in 2017/18.

Months after his Dutch move, Jahanbakhsh received his first international call-up from Carlos Queiroz. Making his debut alongside him was then Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun, while a third youngster, Mehdi Taremi, was handed his maiden call-up a few months earlier. The trio would go on to form the spine of the Team Melli attack, amassing 183 caps and 80 goals between them. “The three of us have been playing together for around six or seven years,” said Jahanbakhsh. “We have had a lot of good players up front, but mainly it has been us three and thank God we have done well so far.”

Azmoun and Taremi followed in Jahanbakhsh’s trails, winning top scorer awards in the Russian and Portuguese top divisions respectively, and the 28-year-old believes it stems from a sense of duty towards their younger compatriots.

“We try to do our best in Europe to make it easier for other Iranian players of the new generation to make it to Europe, because we know how important that is for our country and the national team,” said Jahanbakhsh. “That is a responsibility we have, and we feel it on our shoulders.

“When I started playing football, I would never have thought I would play in the World Cup, let alone three times. But it will not only be me making it to a third World Cup with Iran hopefully. “Ehsan Hajsafi and Karim Ansarifard were also with me in 2014 and 2018. It’s not something I expected, but it is something I worked hard for. It was always one of my biggest dreams whenever I wore the national team jersey.

“Representing your country at a World Cup is big matter, and to have that experience twice and headed towards the third hopefully, that is a massive achievement for me. For my family, for my friends and everyone who supported me. “The excitement of World Cup doesn’t change and no matter how often you experience it, it is always the same. I still think and feel the same and look forward to it as I did at the age of 19 back in 2014. I’m looking forward to it and hopefully I can represent my country in the best way possible and make our nation proud.”

The route to making their nation proud starts at Khalifa International Stadium, where Jahanbakhsh is set to line up against many of the names he faced in his three years at Brighton and Hove Albion, a difficult time in the life of a player whose highlight was scoring a Premier League Goal of the Month with an exquisite bicycle-kick against Chelsea in January 2020.

“I played against many of this England team during my time there,” he said. “Plenty of quality players! They can easily field three different World Cup teams. They have three to four world-class players in every position, so they are one of the favourites to win the World Cup and that says enough about this team and the quality they have as a team and individually. “We are going to do our best and that’s the most important thing. It’s the same situation with USA and Wales – they have a lot of good players who will come to do their best at the World Cup.”

Four years earlier, Iran found themselves in the so-called group of death alongside Iberian duo Spain and Portugal and Morocco. Jahanbakhsh and company proved they were no pushovers, holding Portugal to a draw and beating Morocco. A missed Taremi chance against Rui Patricio was the difference between first-phase elimination and the Round of 16, and Jahanbakhsh believes reaching that milestone is inevitable for his country.

“Last World Cup we were quite close,“ he said. “Portugal and Spain went through with five points and we just missed out with four. Nobody expected us to do this well, but we were united as a team. I think we did quite a good job in all three games and were unlucky not to make it to the next round from such a difficult group.

“We have the same ambition now, to work hard for our nation as a team. We know millions of Iranians back home and around the world are looking forward to seeing us performing and making them proud. You never know. It’s such a tough group we are in, but we will work hard and do our best to achieve big things in Qatar.

“We are having one of our best generations and the boys have been playing together for a very long time. Realistically our aim is to be at every World Cup, but we have to change our aim to not be content with just qualifying. We made it three times in a row, but making it to the next round is our aim now.

It is not just England that will stand in Iran’s way come November. A replay of that 1998 clash against USA at Al Thumama Stadium could prove the decider on the final matchday of Group B, and for Jahanbakhsh, the challenge of facing the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna and Weston McKennie is a totally different type of challenge to that faced by Daei and Co 24 years ago.

“It is quite a big thing for our country to play in the World Cup, but in this game, we think of nothing beyond that,“ he said. “I think the biggest difference compared to 1998 is the generations. Now we have one of the best generations in the history of Iranian football, and for the US it’s the same thing, they’ve got a lot of quality players individually playing in top European leagues and performing well. So I think the level of USMNT now is very different than 24 years ago, and so are we.

“We have never made it to the Round of 16, so that is our biggest aim, but we play in one of the toughest groups with England, the US and Wales. But if I want to say my dream, it would be to do our best first, then to make it to the second round. That’s what’s on our minds.”

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