Illustration by Federico Manasse
Pelé trails him by 32 goals, Ronaldo by 36, and Messi by 51. Indeed no footballer, past or present, could ever dream of matching Ali Daei’s tally of international goals. The Iranian legend’s career is defined by numbers. From 1993 until his retirement in 2007, Daei plundered an astonishing 109 goals for his country, making him the only player to break the century mark at international level.
Daei was one of those special breed of players, like Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov and Diego Maradona, who grew in stature the moment they donned their country’s colours. Incredibly, while Daei scored those 109 goals in 149 international matches, he only scored three more in 287 league matches for his various clubs.
Unlike many Asian and Middle Eastern players of that era, Daei was not afraid to try his luck in Europe – even if he did not hit the heights in Germany – but most of his domestic goals were scored in the relative familiarity of his nation’s grounds. He started his career at 19 at his hometown club of Esteghlal Ardabil, where he had spent five years in several age group teams. After only one senior season, he joined Taxirani where he also lasted one campaign, before moving to Bank Tejarat.
The short spells set the tone for the rest of his career. Curiously, Daei never racked up too many appearances in a single season, very often due to prioritising internationals. In four seasons at Tegarat he played only 46 matches, though the goal return was an impressive one every other game.
It was only in 1994 when he moved to his next club, Persepolis, that his career genuinely took off, especially with Iran. That year he scored an incredible 22 goals in 18 internationals, which later earned him a move to Qatar’s Al Sadd.
Eight of those goals came in December’s AFC Asian Cup in the UAE, including four in the match of the tournament, a famous 6-2 win over South Korea. Iran lost the semi-final on penalties to Saudi Arabia, but his standout performances earned him the runner-up spot in the Asian Footballer of the Year award, behind teammate Khodadad Azizi.
Original Series | The 50
In Qatar, Daei racked up 10 goals in only 16 league matches, before, ever the journeyman, he was on the move again. This time it was the big one – to Arminia Bielefeld in Germany in 1997. As Iran eyed the 1998 World Cup in the USA, Daei scored seven goals in 25 Bundesliga matches, but as usual he saved his real heroics for his country.
Daei scored nine in 17 in 1997, as Iran progressed to a winner-takes-all two-legged tie against OFC qualifiers Australia, with a place at France 1998 up for grabs. In front of 128,000 fans at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran managed only a 1-1 draw with Terry Venables’ men. The real drama, however, came in the second leg as Iran pulled off one of their greatest ever results in front of a crowd of over 95,000 in Melbourne, storming back from two goals down to qualify on away goals.
Daei, Azizi, the emerging Ali Karimi and the rest of the squad earned hero status in Iran. In France, Jalal Talebi’s team exited at the group stage but still managed to record arguably the most famous result their history, a fabled 2-1 win over the USA.
Daei was at the peak of his career, and that summer Bayern Munich came calling. In Bavaria, he won a Bundesliga title but was an unused substitute in the heartbreaking Champions League final loss to Manchester United at the Camp Nou. Still, Daei was named Asian Player of the Year for the only time in his career. After one season, naturally, at Bayern, three at Hertha Berlin produced only six league goals and 12 in total. With his German odyssey over, he joined Al Shabab in the UAE for two seasons before finishing his career in Iran.
The year 2000 saw another remarkable haul of 20 goals in 19 internationals, including three at the AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon. In 2003 against Lebanon he surpassed Ferenc Puskás’ 84-goal record, and the following year scored his 100th against Laos in a four-goal performance. In a race only with himself, he eventually hit his 109th against Costa Rica in March 2006.
By the time the World Cup in Germany came around, Daei was 36 and clearly past his best, with critics claiming he had no right to make the Iranian squad. Daei, though, did get the support of Franz Beckenbauer who called him “ a great ambassador and one of the best players Bayern Munich had”.
But there would be no fairy-tale ending in Germany. Iran exited the group stages with a single point, and with that Daei’s amazing international journey had come to an end. Today, Iranians still look up to Daei as the country’s greatest player, while international forwards will likely be looking up to his goalscoring record for years to come