This week has been one of mourning for the Iranian football community. This week has been one in which it lost a man whose hypersonic reflexes inspired Team Melli to two AFC Asian Cup crowns during their halcyon days of the 1970s, was coveted by Manchester United, went down as Asia’s second-best goalkeeper of the 20th century and, above all, remained a righteous and humble gentlemen throughout his 61 years.
And though the candles went out on Nasser Hejazi’s life on Monday, following an 18-month battle against lung cancer, his memory will burn on infinitely. An absolute testament to this was the former Nader, Taj, Shahbaz, Esteghlal and Mohammedan No1’s moving funeral yesterday in his native Tehran.
In a ground-breaking step, women were permitted to enter the Azadi Stadium for the first time at an official function. Three-thousand of them – including Hejazi’s daughter Atoosa, the Iran women’s national team captain, and her team-mates – were present along with the iconic figure’s family, friends and former team-mates. Fittingly, Hejazi’s coffin was laid in Azadi’s six-yard box, the scene of so many of his breathtaking saves for Iran and Esteghlal, before the man known as ‘The Legend’ was buried at the Behesht-Zahra cemetery.
Among the 20,000 lucky enough to be present – hundreds of thousands had wanted to attend - was Ali Daei, the world’s 109-goal all-time record scorer who was discovered by Hejazi as a youngster. “I have not come to bid farewell to our legend,” said the emotional 42-year-old. “Hejazi will remain alive in our hearts and minds forever. I learned many invaluable life lessons from Hejazi that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Born in the Iranian capital on 19 December 1949, less than six months before Iran played their first FIFA international, Hejazi quickly set his sights on using his hands to become a professional sportsman. Curiously, though, he yearned to throw a basketball rather than catch a football for a living, and represented his country at youth level at the five-a-side court game.
I have not come to bid farewell to our legend. Hejazi will remain alive in our hearts and minds forever. I learned many invaluable life lessons from Hejazi that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
However, an injury to his high school football team’s goalkeeper proved the catalyst in the teenager’s conversion to grass. The side’s coach viewed Hejazi, who was tall and athletic, as the ideal deputy and, although the student politely declined his elder’s invitation initially, he was eventually persuaded to stand between the sticks for a one-off match. In it he kept a clean sheet. In it he fell in love with football. Basketball became a hobby rather than a career option.
Hejazi made his debut for minnows Nader, before joining Taj (the club became known as Esteghlal in 1979) in 1967. Two years later, the club installed Zdravko Rajkov, who also coached Iran, into its dugout. The Yugoslav swiftly promoted Hejazi into the national squad and handed him an international debut as a 19-year-old that September, when Team Melli beat Pakistan 4-2. Back at Taj, Rajkov and Hejazi combined to help the side become Asian club champions in 1970, with the latter keeping three clean sheets in four games en route to gold.
But if that was Hejazi’s zenith at club level, it was not his career meridian. Indeed, he helped Iran win the AFC Asian Cup in 1972 and ’76, producing a memorable performance in a 2-1 defeat of Korea Republic in the former’s final and a shut-out of Kuwait in the latter’s. Hejazi also represented his country at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournaments of 1972 and 1976 and the 1978 FIFA World Cup Argentina™, where his highlights included a superb one-handed stop to deny Scotland’s Joe Jordan in a 1-1 draw and a fine save from the vaunted left foot of Peruvian Teofilo Cubillas, despite the Western Asians’ 4-1 loss. Those moments prompted Manchester United to hand him a trial and though the English giants wanted to sign Hejazi, political problems in his homeland prevented him from making the move to Old Trafford.
Hejazi played his 62nd and last game for Iran in a semi-final loss to Kuwait at the AFC Asian Cup in 1980. Six years later and 19 after he first signed for Esteghlal – he had a three-year spell at Shahbaz in between – the shot-stopper left his homeland for one last season in Bangladesh, where he played 31 times for Mohammedan, going on to coach them in his second year in Dhaka. Upon his return to Iran, he assumed the reins at nine clubs - including Esteghlal, whose 1997/98 Iranian top-flight title he masterminded - between 1988 and 2007.
And though that was his last occupation in football, the sport stayed with him until the very end. Indeed, when he was taken into coma on Friday, from which he did not awake, he was watching his beloved Esteghlal play PAS Hamedan on television. Fittingly, the Tehran giants won – and kept a clean sheet.
In a letter to Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI) President Ali Kafashian, FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter wrote: “It is with a sad heart that I write to you, having learned of the tragic passing of Nasser Hejazi – a legendary former football player. On behalf of FIFA and the worldwide family of football, I wish to extend our condolences to you, the Iranian football community and, most importantly, Nasser Hejazi’s friends and loved ones. Please let them know that today the football community stands by their side.”