Mehdi Mahdavikia: the Iran legend who became an icon in Hamburg

Mehdi Mahdavikia: the Iran legend who became an icon in Hamburg

FOR 24 HOURS, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh was the most important man on the planet. Lyon’s Stade Gerland is an unlikely stage for geopolitical drama, but it was here on 21 June 1998 that the eyes of the world rested on the captain of Iran’s national football team.

Security for the game against the United States was tight. French special forces prowled the stadium, eager to nix the extremists rumoured to be making their way into the ground. Photos of known troublemakers were circulated, whilst TV crews were warned not to linger on the banners and gesticulations of the crowd. President Bill Clinton, speaking on the morning of the game, urged a conciliatory tone: “I hope it can be another step towards ending the estrangement between our two nations.”

He knew the risks. Iran had been a bitter opponent of the US for decades, ever since the Americans had orchestrated the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq’s government in 1953. Twenty-six years later, the Iranian Revolution deposed the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi, with Ayatollah Khomeini proclaiming the establishment of an Islamic Republic in his stead. Demanding that the Shah be returned from exile to face trial, Khomeini watched on as the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed. Fifty-two American citizens were held for over a year, before a disastrous rescue operation saw eight soldiers and an Iranian citizen perish. The game, it’s fair to say, held significant weight.

The teams, however, were keen to present a united front. White roses were exchanged between Abedzadeh and US captain Thomas Dooley, but when Urs Meier blew his whistle, 90 minutes of violent competition unravelled. Hamid Estili was the drew first blood, looping a header beyond the despairing Kasey Keller from Javad Zarincheh’s cross.

It was the scorer of Iran’s second goal, though, who would go down in the history books. Mehdi Mahdavikia was just 21-years-old, a raucous winger with pace to burn. Six minutes from time, he sprinted onto Ali Daei’s searching through ball. There was only one thing on his mind as he slapped a shot toward’s Keller’s bottom corner; he was about to make history.

Brian McBride’s consolation goal is but a footnote in a game that is still celebrated in Tehran two decades later. For Mahdavikia, it was just the first in a long line of frontiers to be smashed.

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Mehdi Mahdavikia was born in Tehran on 24 July 1977, in a city that was shutting itself away from the outside world. Blackouts were common and dissidents were disappeared, all against the backdrop of a brutal war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. A million Iranian citizens were killed or wounded by the time hostilities ended in 1988.

Kia, as he was affectionately known, was more focused on footballing matters, spending every free moment on the streets conducting impromptu games. A diligent student with a flair for mathematics, he realised that a choice would have to be made between education and sport. When Bank Melli recruited him as a 14-year-old, it was made for him.

Mahdavikia was spindly and unassuming, but his talent was unquestionable. Deployed as a striker, he broke into the first team and immediately scored a hatful of goals. Hia natural speed – at his peak, he could run 100 metres in 11 seconds – meant that he was often unplayable against players far beyond his teenage years.

The goals didn’t stop, either, until Stanko Poklepović snatched Mahdavikia for local behemoths Persepolis in 1995. Under the Croat’s wily auspices, he migrated to the right flank, where his pace and guile proved the perfect accompaniment for Khodadad Azizi and Ali Daei’s knowing movement. The hours of practising his crosses and free-kicks – guided by former teacher and youth coach Ali Doustimehr – suddenly seemed prudent. Inevitably, the title arrived in his first full season, before Pohang Steelers narrowly pipped his teammates in the semi-final of the Asian Champions League.

Quickly, Mahdavikia was outgrowing his surroundings. Two more domestic titles followed in 1997 and 1999, but his star gained prominence some three years earlier when he was called up by national team boss Mohammed Mayeli Kohan after regular right-back Naeim Saadavi was banned on doping charges.

An Asian Young Footballer of the Year award arrived in 1997, but it was his performances for Team Melli that had scouts’ heads turning. Almost 130,000 fans crammed into the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch Kia and his teammates hold Australia in the first leg of their 1998 World Cup playoff. The Socceroos, who had decried their visit to the capital as dangerous, were no match for a spirited Team Melli at the return leg a week later. Iran were through to their first World Cup in 20 years.

Coming away from the Stade Vélodrome in December 1997, Egidius Braun would have allowed himself a sigh of contentment. The president of the German Football Association (DFB) had just watched his team drawn into a docile group alongside Yugoslavia, Iran and the United States. The DFB, however, are nothing if not thorough. A delegation of scouts was sent to Tehran in order to ascertain what Die Mannschaft should expect for their game against Team Melli on 25 June.

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It was then that Mahdavikia’s fate was sealed. By the time Iran faced Germany in Montpellier, he was being courted by a number of clubs, including Tottenham. Iran might have crashed out in the early stages but Mahdavikia was about to embark on his own adventure, signing for Vfl Bochum on loan in January 1999.

Klaus Toppmöller’s men were already doomed, but Mahdavikia impressed even as his club slid to relegation. Frank Pagelsdorf, Hamburg’s chubbily inspirational coach, parted with 2.5 million marks to bring him north. It wasn’t long before things went awry. The Iranian FA presented Hamburg with a list of 13 international matches that Mahdavikia would be required to attend that season alone, with the club’s general manager Bernd Wehmeyer looking to reach a similar compromise to the one which allowed Daei to manage his international commitments.

If things were rough off the pitch, however, Mahdavikia didn’t show it. Hamburg would finish third in the Bundesliga, thanks in no small part to the foraging runs of their Persian recruit. Der Teppich – The Carpet, as he would be christened by the adoring crowd – was a storm of dribbles and feints on Hamburg’s right flank, helping his side to their best finish in nearly two decades. Cries of “Mehdi! Mehdi! Mehdi!” were growing more clamorous with every one of his scintillating displays. Pagelsdorf was quick to praise him, marvelling that “our attacking game thrives on his speed on the flanks. He is the ideal counter-attacking player”.

Given their current malaise, Hamburg fans might look back on their Champions League campaign of 2001 with some melancholy. A famous 3-1 win over Juventus in the group stages couldn’t seal passage to the next round, but Mahdavikia looked comfortable on the continent stage alongside Tony Yeboah and Stig Tøfting. By now, Hamburg’s Rakete (Rocket) had foregone his wing-back role for a more advanced attacking position, with interim coach Holger Hieronymous raving that “he has developed magnificently”.

Things would continue to get better. No player made more assists in the Bundesliga in 2003, with Mahdavikia’s tally of 14 the highest since records began seven years before. Another Asian Player of the Year accolade followed, as well as a 4-2 thrashing of Dortmund in the LigaPokal. Every fortnight, Hamburg’s ravenous fans lined up to greet their Iranian superstar with something that felt close to worship. “When 50,000 people call your name, it’s an incredible feeling,” Mahdavikia would later tell Frankfurter Rundschau.

The most damning falls, however, occur from the greatest height.

The next season was comparatively stale, with Kia registering just two assists as Hamburg tumbled to eighth place. A year later, the arrival of Rafael van der Vaart was widely seen as the death knell for his status as the team’s chief creative threat. Mahdavikia, however, responded in the only way he knew how. He began the 2005/06 season in blistering form, helping his side to four wins in their first six Bundesliga games as well as victory in the Intertoto Cup. By now, Liverpool and Manchester United had been awoken to his talents, but neither could match the valuation proposed by Hamburg president Bernd Hoffman. A bumper contract was agreed, with Mahdavikia intent on making up for a dismal 12 months.

Sadly, it would prove to be a false dawn. Hamburg coach Thomas Doll seemed loathe to pick him, shrugging off a lack of playing time by blithely suggesting that “there will always be unhappy players”. For a man accustomed to unyielding adulation, it was a tough pill to swallow.

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Events in Mahdavikia’s personal life would provide further headaches. In April 2006, Bild ran with a story that he had married two women, with neither aware of the other’s existence. The ruse was only discovered when his second wife, Samira, announced herself at an HSV game, only to be told in no uncertain terms that Mahdavikia’s wife’s name was Sepideh. Bigamy is a criminal offence in Germany, but given that both marriages were convened in Iran, no action could be taken.

If Mahdavikia hoped for a more serene time at international level, he was badly mistaken. Iran’s participation at the 2006 World Cup was widely condemned, with German legislators suggesting that the country be banned after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a slew of anti-Semitic comments. The German embassy in Tehran, meanwhile, had been firebombed after cartoonist Klaus Stuttmann published a derogatory cartoon about Team Melli’s footballers in Der Tagesspiegel.

Compared to the furore over their participation, Iran’s displays at the tournament were decidedly asinine. A lamentable draw against Angola wrought their only point in a desperate campaign. Few players looked as jaded as the 30-year-old right-back, who called time on his stay in Hamburg by joining Frankfurt a year later.

Friedhelm Funkel, Frankfurt’s jowly impresario, was signing a player that was clearly past his best. Repeated injuries meant Mahdavikia made little contribution in his first season, with the coach lamenting the loss of his trademark pace. His new signing didn’t take kindly to the comments, reminding Funkel, “I am not a machine. I am 31 now.” After just 32 appearances in three years, he returned to Iran – but not before he found himself making the headlines once more.

In the final game of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, a clutch of Iran’s players had adorned themselves with green bracelets. Despite the protestations of a team official who claimed they were religious items, the bracelets were perceived to be a message of support for opposition candidate Hossein Mousavi, who had recently lost a general election by a wide margin to the incumbent Ahmadinejad. The polls were widely condemned by the international community, with irregularities noted throughout the count, and Mousavi himself suggested that the election was a “dangerous charade”. Most of the players removed the bands at half-time, but Mahdavikia headed a brave coterie in keeping the bracelets on.

The response was swift and brutal. All six of the offending players were forcibly retired from international duty. Mahdavikia, captain of the national side and scorer of arguably his country’s most famous ever goal, was struck from selection.

A year had passed by the time Mahdavikia returned home. Tehran club Estil Azin had recently been taken over by billionaire magnate Hossein Haydati, but Mahdavikia’s arrival coincided with a haphazard time for the nouveau-riche set-up. Star player Ali Karimi had been sacked the year before after failing to fast during Ramadan, whilst his outspoken criticism of club director Mostafa Ajorlou had also ruffled feathers. Despite boasting a squad with the likes of Ferydoon Zandi and Amir Shapourzadeh, the club suffered an embarassing relegation in Mahdivikia’s only season .

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That summer, he waited for Persepolis to bring him home. When the call failed to arrive, he joined spritely newcomers Domosh Gilan for the 2011/12 season. Whilst his contribution on the pitch might have been average, his influence in the dressing room was unmistakable. A man renowned for his professionalism and good humour, he struck up a telling friendship with young star Alireza Jahanbaksh. “Back when I was starting out in football, Mahdavikia was one of the greatest players in the national team,” the now-AZ Alkmaar winger gushed to “He was always nice to me, he always answered and he just showed me the way he had passed through and was an idol for me both on and off the field.”

After one final swansong with Persepolis, Mahdavikia retired in 2013. A player who built his entire career on energy and indefatigable stamina was hardly about to resign himself to a life of leisure, though. Barely a week after hanging up his boots, he was announced as a Grassroots Ambassador for the Asian Football Confederation, combining his role with coaching Iran’s under-17 side.

Two years later he set up Kia FC, Iran’s first grassroots football club, a role that he combines with his day job as a youth coach at Hamburg. “Kia FC was an idea that I had in my mind for many years that had come to me when I was playing football in Germany,” Mahdavikia said in a recent interview with Gol Bezan.

Despite its size and resources, youth football is somewhat of a forgotten cause in Iran. Mahdavikia, without any significant support from the authorities, poured his own money into the creation of a club that hopes to maximise the country’s obvious footballing potential. “The goal is to make sure all of these kids become great players in the future and be able to make the national team proud.”

They’re going the right way about it. Kia FC might be just three years old but they’ve already finished as runners-up in two international competitions, beating the likes of Bayern Munich, VfB Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen along the way. With Mahdavikia at the helm, who knows how far this club will go.

For a player of such immense talent, Mahdavikia faced more than his share of setbacks and tribulations. His importance to Iran’s sporting history, however, remains incalculable. The 2-1 victory over the United States was celebrated throughout the Middle East, but nowhere as vociferously as in his home city.

On that warm night in June, thousands of men and women descended onto Tehran’s tree-lined parks and boulevards for an evening of unbridled mirth. Even the nearby Alborz mountains were rocked by the joy spilling onto the streets as cars and motorbikes honked their horns and paper flags fluttered proudly from apartment blocks and sunroofs. Young and old, male and female; for one glorious night, they were united as one. For Mehdi Mahdavikia, that is legacy enough.

By Christopher Weir  @chrisw45

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