ESPN FC|John Duerden: Last Sunday was memorable for Iran’s football fans around the world. In the Eredivisie, two top-six teams were lining up, with both featuring a striker from the West Asian nation. Alireza Jahanbakhsh was in AZ Alkmaar’s attack, while Reza Ghoochannejhad was leading the line for SC Heerenveen. The former was on the winning team while the latter ended up on the scoresheet.
Iran have been Asia’s top-ranked side for four years, and are well on course for a fifth World Cup appearance in 2018. “Team Melli,” as Iran are known, also have an increasing number of attacking players active in Europe. Despite being regarded as the most defensively accomplished team in Asia, they also have an embarrassment of riches going forward.
As well as the Netherlands-based duo, there is the highly rated and much sought-after Sardar Azmoun in Russia with FC Rostov, who has been linked to Liverpool and other bigger clubs. And there’s Karim Ansarifard, who recently joined Greek giants Olympiakos.
For any other Asian nation, Ghoochannejhad would, surely, be starting every week because he can’t stop scoring in the Netherlands.
Ghoochannejhad, who moved to the Netherlands as a child, is second in the Eredivisie scoring charts with Heerenveen. In 22 league appearances this season, “Gucci” has found the net 13 times, with the goal against AZ just the latest. The Dutch top tier may not be quite as formidable as years past, but the 29-year-old’s tally shows that he is developing nicely after a varied club career.
“He’s just a really good striker,” teammate Martin Odegaard, on loan from Real Madrid, said last month. “If you give him the right supply, he will score goals and we have seen that this season. To score three against a top-three team was a fine achievement.”
The Norwegian was referring to a memorable display in January when Reza became the first player since 1978 to grab a hat trick away to PSV Eindhoven in a league game.
It was a performance that would have earned greater praise had his team not fallen asleep at the back to let a 3-2 lead, with a few minutes remaining, turn into a 4-3 defeat. One point from the last four games has seen Heerenveen slip to sixth, but a top-four finish is still achievable.
“He scores goals when the team needs him,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told ESPN FC in January. “There are not many Asian strikers who score regularly in Europe, and he has worked hard to get where he is. He is a team player who works hard in defence, but whatever the team’s situation, he can get you a goal.”
Famously, he did so in June 2013. Picking up the ball just inside the South Korean half at the Ulsan Munsu Stadium, the then-Standard Liege man used his pace to set off for goal, kept his cool and slotted the ball past Jung Sung-Ryeong to send Iran to the 2014 World Cup.
In a hostile environment, the Mashad-born star delivered his goal with typical composure and calmness. He was on a hot streak and netted nine times in his first 11 internationals. He also scored Iran’s only goal at the 2014 World Cup against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By that time, he was playing in the English Championship with Charlton Athletic. The London club were fighting against relegation, and the Iranian struggled for service and support. In two spells, he managed just five goals in 43 appearances, and he left just after they dropped down to League One. Given what was happening at the Valley, it may have been the wrong club at the wrong time.
He then returned to Heerenveen, where he had started out as a professional after coming up through the club’s academy. That started a journey that led from the Netherlands to Belgium, England, Kuwait, Qatar and then back to England. Now home at Heerenveen, he seems settled and enjoying life. The right service, and playing alongside Sam Larsson in attack, helps too.
Next month, attention will turn back to Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup. It now remains to be seen if his club form can help him recapture his automatic starting spot.
Azmoun and Jahanbakhsh, respectively seven and six years younger, are getting more time these days, but with Ghoochannejhad continuing to find the target in the Netherlands, he has a chance. If it comes his way, he may well, once again, get the goals to take Iran to a World Cup.
Whatever happens, it is can only be good for Iranian football to have a number of strikers scoring goals in Europe.