June 23, 2024
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Fifa.com – ROTTERDAM, Winger discusses breaking new ground with IR Iran at World Cup 26, dealing with adulation in his homeland, and ‘amazing’ Feyenoord experience.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh knows the drill. One of IR Iran’s most recognisable and beloved sportspeople, word quickly spreads whenever he visits his Qazvin hometown.

His parents’ apartment block becomes a hub of activity, with a steady stream of adoring fans hoping to snatch a selfie and exchange a few words with their hero.

“The doorbell goes a lot!” Jahanbakhsh tells FIFA. “Somehow, they find out that I’m back home and then they just come and ring it. My parents live on the fourth floor, so I go downstairs, make some pictures with them, have some conversation. I do that a minimum 10 times a day, easily.”

It is no surprise to learn Jahanbakhsh handles those interactions with such grace and enthusiasm. Unfailingly polite, the 30-year-old’s natural warmth shines through during our half-hour interview.

“I try to be nice with all the people, to take my time with them,” he continues. “At the end of the day, football is a career which maybe lasts for 15 or 20 years, but you will be remembered for how you are as a person.”

Jahanbakhsh cuts a relaxed, contented figure as he speaks to FIFA via video link from Feyenoord’s Rotterdam training complex. The winger counts the Netherlands as his “second home”, having moved to the country aged 19 and lived there for most of his adult life. The Iranian spent two seasons with NEC Nijmegen and three with AZ Alkmaar from 2013 to 2018 ­­– but had not won a major trophy before Feyenoord’s 2022/23 Eredivisie triumph.

“That title was something I needed,” says Jahanbakhsh, who joined Feyenoord in 2021 from Brighton & Hove Albion. “I’d had seven seasons in the Netherlands and, from a personal point of view, individually I’d done some good stuff. But I really needed to win something as a collective. To win the league with a club like Feyenoord, with the amazing fanbase we have, is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Jahanbakhsh’s smile broadens as he recalls the title celebrations in the heart of Rotterdam.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but when we went on the balcony at City Hall, the streets were full of people. They said between 150,000 to 200,000 people attended that party. It was insane! I truly felt how much it meant to our fans.”

Feyenoord fell just short of a successful defence of their championship in 2023/24, finishing runners-up to a relentless PSV Eindhoven, but Jahanbakhsh and Co did get their hands on more silverware by winning the KNVB Cup.

Jahanbakhsh will aim to take that positive momentum into Iran’s FIFA World Cup 26™ qualifiers against Hong Kong and Uzbekistan in June. Team Melli have made serene progress in their campaign so far and will go into the games assured of their place in the next round of AFC qualification.

Jahanbakhsh has already graced three World Cups and, if he features at the 2026 finals, will join an elite list of players including Pele, Diego Maradona and Paolo Maldini who have played in four editions.

“I will work day in, day out to achieve that,” says Jahanbakhsh, who has won 83 caps for his country. “It was a dream to just play in one World Cup and to achieve that aged 20 [at Brazil 2014] was an incredible privilege. To play in four… let’s see! That is not something that happens often. I will do my best to be there and make myself and my family proud.”

The next World Cup will be the biggest of all time, with 48 teams set to compete across 16 cities in Canada, Mexico and the United States.

“I’ve been talking with the boys in the national team about how important it is we make it, because this World Cup is so unique. In the US, the Iranian fanbase is really, really big. It’s the same in Canada actually. That’s so exciting. I’ve had Mexican team-mates too, and they really live football there. The atmosphere is going to be special.”

Of his three World Cup experiences to date, Jahanbakhsh counts Iran’s dramatic stoppage-time wins over Morocco at Russia 2018 and Wales at Qatar 2022 as his standout moments.

The Iranians have yet to qualify for the knockout phase at the global finals, however. A draw in their final group game against USA in Qatar would have been enough to take them to the last 16 but, with the talismanic Jahanbakhsh suspended, they were beaten 1-0. The Feyenoord star describes missing that game as his “most painful” World Cup memory – and says it only has intensified his hunger to break new ground in 2026.

“We have had an amazing generation, qualifying for three World Cups in a row, and I still feel we can get to another and go past the groups. It is kind of a dream for our country to make it through to the next round. Along with trying to win the Asian Cup, it is our biggest motivation. We still have some business to do with the national team.”

Over the past decade, Iran’s frontline has been spearheaded by an all-star attacking triumvirate of Jahanbakhsh, Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun. Born within two years of each other, they boast a combined total of 248 senior caps and 115 goals.

“Mehdi and Sardar are amazing players and amazing guys,” says Jahanbakhsh. “We have a great relationship off the pitch and that helps us on the field. They have done so well for their clubs too and, wherever they’ve been, I always follow them.”

Indeed, Taremi has been one of the Portuguese top-flight’s most prolific marksmen of recent years, with his goals helping fire FC Porto to multiple trophy successes. Fellow centre-forward Azmoun was a regular scorer in Russia, particularly for Zenit St Petersburg, before moving to Bayer Leverkusen and then Roma.

Jahanbakhsh’s European journey, meanwhile, has taken him to the Netherlands and England, where he spent three years with Premier League club Brighton from 2018 to 2021.

“I had a great time there,” he says. “Brighton was a fantastic city. The club had a big project, and you can see that with what they’ve gone on to achieve. Football-wise, it could have gone better for me, but that’s part of the game. There are always ups and downs.”

Expectations were high when Jahanbakhsh signed for the newly promoted Seagulls from AZ Alkmaar for a club-record fee. He had just had his best-ever season, scoring 21 league goals to win the Eredivisie Golden Boot, but struggled to nail down a starting spot at Brighton. Jahanbakhsh’s Premier League adventure was not without its highlights, however, and a stunning overhead kick against Chelsea in January 2020 provided an emphatic reminder of his capabilities.

“I’ve scored goals like that before, in Iran and at NEC, but to do it in such a level against such a good team, it feels different,” he says. “My parents were at the game, as well as my sister, my stepbrother and their kids. That made it even better. The reaction I got afterwards, especially from people back home, was crazy. I haven’t got kids yet but, if I do, that’ll be one of the goals I’ll show them!”

Jahanbakhsh returned to the Netherlands in summer 2021 to link up again with Feyenoord boss Arne Slot, who he had previously worked with at AZ Alkmaar.

“Arne was more of an assistant coach at AZ,” explains Jahanbakhsh. “I knew how good he was, his football style and his philosophy. I would say he has been the biggest part of what Feyenoord have done over the past three years. During that time, I think he’s been the best Dutch coach out there. He’s very smart. He knows what he wants, and he makes it very clear for the players. It now looks like he’s making a nice move and that’s no more than he has deserved.”

This, of course, is a reference to Slot’s appointment as Liverpool’s new coach, with the Dutchman now confirmed as Jurgen Klopp’s successor at Anfield. Jahanbakhsh, meanwhile, says he will know more about his own future “in the next few weeks”. His current Feyenoord contract expires at the end of June.

“I will look at my options and see what’s best for me,” he adds. “I’m only 30 and I feel I have a few good years left in me. I want to stay at a high level for as long as possible.”

Jahanbakhsh’s status as an Iranian football great is secure but, with a fourth World Cup and a century of international caps in sight, he remains as driven as ever.

“I’m the same kid I was when I turned professional more than a decade ago. I’m very competitive and I push everyone to be their best. I want to make my team-mates better every day. I try to talk to the new generation and tell them what’s best, what’s not. I always say to the young guys that being a football player is a gift we got from God. It’s such a privilege for us to have the opportunity to show our talents.”

Jahanbakhsh credits his parents for passing down the values he lives by today.

They also ensure every time the doorbell sounds during a trip home, any thoughts of staying in his family bubble are quickly dismissed.

“A couple of times I’ve said, ‘This time maybe I shouldn’t go down and we can spend more time together…’ My parents are like, ‘Just go downstairs, the people want to show you some love and respect.’ They are right, of course. You have to be humble, act normal. I may have some talent in football, but many others have talents I don’t have. I’m just one of the people.”