Name: Ali Daei
Born: 21 March 1969 in Ardabil (Iran)
Clubs as a player: 1983-1988: Javarana Ardabil. 1988-1989: Esthegial Ardabil. 1989-1990: Taxirani FC. 1990-1994: Tejarat Bank 1994-1996: Persepolis Tehran (all Iran). 1996-1997: Al-Sadd (Qatar). 1997-1998: Arminia Bielefeld (Germany). 1998-1999: Bayern Munich (Germany). 1999-2002: Hertha Berlin (Germany). 2002-2003: Ai-Shabab (United Arab Emirates). 2003-2004: Persepolis Tehran. 2004-2006: Saba Battery Tehran, 2006-2007: Saipa Tehran (Iran).
Honours as a player: Iranian championship (1996, 2007), German championship (1999), Iranian Super Cup (2005), world’s leading international goalscorer (1996), Asian Footballer of the Year (1999), leading goalscorer of the preliminary competition for the FIFA World Cup™ in Korea and Japan (2002), leading goalscorer of the Iran Pro League (2004), Iran’s leading international goalscorer with 109 goals in 149 full international matches.
Coaching career: 2006-2007: Saipa Tehran (player-coach). Since 2007: Saipa Tehran. Since 2008: Iran national team.
Honours as a coach: Iranian championship (2007).
“My work is not based on friendship”
Ali Daei was the best striker in the history of Asian football. He immediately set out on a coaching career following his retirement and is now in charge of two teams.
Nobody could ever have imagined that Ali Daei, a 19-year-old metallurgy student from the mountain city of Ardabil, would go on to become one of the most prolific goal-scorers in world football.
Daei was a gifted student. Born on 21 March 1969, he graduated in Metallurgy from Iran’s prestigious Sharif University of Technology but began to attract interest from professional clubs when he shot to the top of the scoring charts in the Tehran league while playing for his hometown club.
Daei’s footballing career may have started late but it took off quickly. He made his debut for the Iranian national team at 24 and went on to enjoy consistent success throughout his career. “Shahriar”, as he was known in his Turkish-speaking hometown, soon left Iran for bigger things, eventually starring for famous clubs like Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin.
He was voted AFC Player of the Year in 1999 and holds the all-time international goal-scoring record after notching 109 goals in 149 games.
Many thought Daei’s international retirement after the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ would bring down the curtain on a glorious career, but he went on to enjoy further success a year later, scoring one of the goals in Saipa’s decisive 2-0 win in the last round of the Iran Pro League in May 2007. This victory handed the title to the team he player-coached and meant Daei grabbed the headlines of the world’s media for one last time as a player.
Daei has now entered a new chapter in his career. He was appointed national coach of Iran following the draw with Syria in the first qualifying match, with the aim of steering Team Melli to die 2010 FIFA World Cup™.
FM: Can you confound expectations and lead Iran to the latter stages of the FIFA World Cup™?
Ali Daei: No doubt. I am here to bring something new to my country’s national team and I strongly believe in what I do. Team Melli can progress beyond the group stages for the first time at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. I don’t see any reason why not. We have failed to go beyond this stage in any of our previous appearances, whether in Argentina in 1978, France in 1998, or Germany in 2006, so it’s time to break new ground. What’s more, Iran will not have reached the final of the AFC Asian Cup for 35 years, ever since winning three consecutive championships between 1968 and 1976, so I hope we can emerge victorious in Qatar in 2011. We have a strong, technically gifted team and there is no reason why we can’t reach new heights.
You have been personally involved in Iran’s FIFA World Cup™ matches ever since the qualifying round for USA 1994, when the team failed to qualify from the final round of the Asian qualifiers in Doha. What have been the most memorable moments of your career so far?
Daei: Nothing compares with the moment we drew 2-2 with Australia in the second leg of the AFC-OFC play¬off match in Melbourne in 1997, a result which saw us qualify for the World Cup again after a 20-year absence. That was a dramatic qualifying campaign. We failed to qualify from the group stage, lost to Japan in the AFC play-off match, drew with Australia in Tehran and then suddenly came back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 when the match had seemed beyond us.
Nobody could believe it — it was a miracle. No sooner had the final whistle blown than a party broke out among Iranians all over the world. Making people happy is the greatest achievement for a footballer and that was an unforgettable experience. It’s my aim to bring my country more joy, this time as the coach. On the other hand, I know how painful it is to lose. A few years later, we only needed a draw against Bahrain to qualify for the 2002 World Cup but we lost. That was a really bitter experience.
You scored for Saipa in the team’s decisive 2-0 victory in your final match and immediately announced your retirement pitch-side. Did you plan this beforehand or did you simply think it was a fitting end to your prolific career?
Daei: To be honest, I planned to retire after the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but unexpected circumstances prompted me to delay my retirement for another year. This time round, I didn’t tell anybody. I scored the winning goal as a player, while also winning the championship title as a coach. My team-mates helped me bring a happy end to my career as a footballer and accomplish my last mission. However, this is not an end but a beginning for me.
Did you have any plans to begin coaching before your last international appearance at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™? You started coaching at 37 even although you hadn’t hung up your boots for Saipa.
Daei: I always wanted to be a successful coach but I never expected my career in coaching to start so soon. Following the sudden departure of German coach Werner Lorant from Saipa in the middle of last season, the club’s board appointed me as player-coach. It could have taken me three or four years to become a coach but everything happened so quickly and ended with an immediate championship!
You have to work extremely hard and look after yourself carefully to enjoy a career as successful as yours. You are still the highest-ever goal-scorer of the FIFA World Cup™ preliminary competition, and you were named Asian Footballer of the Year in 1999. Can you maintain your success as a coach? You are still only 39 years old and many believe you need more experience. Does that concern you?
Daei: Experience is an important element but not the only one. Coaching requires all kinds of different factors, not only experience. It requires a highly individual approach and you have to draw on your own personality. For me, management and leadership are the main factors. You often find diese qualities in big-name players. What’s more, you also need lots of information at your disposal.
Many fans were expecting Iran to name a high-profile foreign coach but your appointment is part of a new trend in football towards young, reformist coaches. People compare you with Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann and the Netherlands’ Marco van Basten…
Daei: Klinsmann brought life back into German football. He dropped some regulars and called up a host of unheralded young players. I think this gave German football a new platform to build on, one which will enable it to resume its rightful position at the top of world football soon. Van Basten’s appointment had a similar effect on the Dutch team. I’m also determined to take a different approach. I’d like to introduce fresh ideas to Team Melli. My prime motivation is to make changes and serve Iranian football, otherwise I wouldn’t have accepted the post.
Many of the players are your friends, and up until recently were team-mates or opponents. For example, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Mehdi Mahdavikia played alongside you for the national team for more than a decade, as did Hannover striker Vahid Hashemian and Livorno defender Rahman Rezaei. How difficult is it for you to make decisions about these players?
Daei: These players are still good friends of mine but my chief priority at all times is to look after the interests of Team Melli. I will pick the players who are fit and ready. My friendship or any other sentiments will not have a bearing on who takes the field or what happens during a game. I’ll do whatever is required to ensure the team’s success and ignore all non-football-related matters. My work is not based on friendship so I’ll have no problems implementing my plans.
What characteristics do you hope to stamp on Team Melli?
Daei: I draw on the ideas of all coaches but I have my own distinct style. I saw what Jurgen Klinsmann brought to the German team in terms of fitness, conditioning, training routines and coaching. He introduced some amazing ideas and I am always keen to learn from others. But at the end of the day I am Ali Daei and my work has to be based on the football circumstances in Iran. We are not a developed country so it’s important for us to practise rather than preach.
How confident are you that you’ll be able to improve the Iranian team’s chances? Your first match as Iran coach ended in a 2-2 draw against Kuwait in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match.
Daei: I don’t feel under any particular pressure at the moment. We picked up a decent point in Kuwait, which wasn’t a bad result. After all, we haven’t managed to come away from Kuwait with a victory for some years now. Also, you have to look at the result in context. That same day, Saudi Arabia lost 3-0 in Uzbekistan and Japan were beaten 1-0 by Bahrain. What’s more, we didn’t have enough time to train. So I’m not worried, our time will come soon.
You hold the title as the highest-ever goal-scorer in a FIFA World Cup™ qualifying round. Will your attacking philosophy leave its imprint on the Iran team? Iran hadn’t scored for six matches before netting twice against Kuwait.
Daei: Now that I’m the coach, my strategy is directed more towards winning than simply scoring lots of goals. I need to develop a winning mentality among my players and get them to focus on our long-term goal in tournaments. The term “goal” means a lot more to a coach than it does to a striker.
In addition to the national team, you are also coaching Saipa in Iran’s Pro League and in the AFC Champions League. Are you able to devote enough attention to your two roles and be successful in both?
Daei: I have no worries on that score. My duties as coach of Team Melli do not interfere in any way with my duties at club level. Our aim at Saipa is to qualify for the APC Champions League quarter-finals and then to progress as far as we can. We’re in a good position in Group B and we’re very optimistic about our chances.
Because of your vast experience and leadership qualities, coaches used to rely heavily on you as their captain. How much do you count on your captains Mehdi Mahdavikia or Ali Karimi?
Daei: I will ask for help whenever it is needed. The captain, or indeed any of the other more senior players, has a key role to play in improving the discipline of the team. In recent months, we’ve had the most disciplined team that I can ever remember. This is largely down to the contribution of the experienced players.
You are a great believer in the fact that religious faith can spur people on to greater achievements. Do you promote religious faith among your players as a means of increasing their self-confidence?
Daei: Faith is a private matter. We never advertise any beliefs or force players to follow any model. But we can show players how to take better care of themselves and boost their confidence. We should act as a good role model for them.
All national teams, especially their coaches, are the focus of regular media attention. Coaches often have to remain calm in the middle of a crisis. Are you ready to handle situations of this kind? This is another side of high-level coaching, particularly on the road to the FIFA World Cup™.
Daei: I’ve actually given a good deal of thought to the media and its reactions. It’s part of their job to comment on the national team. I think it’s important that we deal with one other in a fair and rational manner. That’s all I expect. In any case, I regard the media as being part of the football family. I appreciate what they do for football, and view them in a positive light.
How will the Asian teams perform at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™? Do you foresee any improvement?
Daei: We can’t deny there’s a gap between Asian football and the world’s developed football nations. It will take a lot of hard work and patience to close this gap. We can improve, provided we believe in ourselves and step up our efforts. The competition in world football is getting tougher and teams are more closely matched. Korea Republic’s performance in 2002 or Australia’s results in Germany in 2006 are good examples of the continents potential. I don’t think any of the Asian teams will go to South Africa simply to make up the numbers. We have enough time to build up our teams and leave our mark on world football in 2010.