The stage was set for one of Asia's biggest stars to emerge and shine when China PR and Iran lined up at Dalian's Jinzhou Stadium on 13 September 1997, in the continent’s penultimate qualifying stage for the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™.
Hosts China, captained by Fan Zhiyi and reinforced by promising youngsters Li Tie and Sun Jihai, had fixed their sights on a home victory. Iran, however, were strongly-favoured going into the encounter on the back of their semi-final showing at the 1996 AFC Asian Cup.
Team Melli had quality all over the pitch. Spearheading the attack was none other than Ali Daei, who was on target four times as his side stunned Korea Republic 6-2 in the aforementioned continental finals. Partnering him upfront was Khodadad Azizi, while Karim Bagheri was the midfield lynchpin. Standing in the shadows of these established stars, was a 19-year-old right fullback named Mehdi Mahdavikia.
During an evenly contested first half, the home side took the lead just before the break, as Fan Zhiyi opening the scoring through a penalty. The Chinese doubled the lead shortly after the restart when midfielder Li Ming collected a chipped pass to volley home.
While China looked on course for a comfortable win, Iran pulled one back just past the hour-mark. Zhiyi fouled Daei in the area and Bagheri sent Ou Chuliang the wrong way to put the game on a knife edge.
Mahdavikia announces his arrival
Iran’s goal seemed to cause tension for the hosts, who were still hunting a maiden appearance at the FIFA World Cup. The visitors began to heap pressure on the Chinese goal, and it didn't take long before there was an equaliser. Coming from deep, Mahdavikia picked up a pass from midfield, before twisting past a series of Chinese defenders and lobbing the ball over the keeper into the top corner.
With the hosts stunned and frustrated, Mahdavikia then proceeded to turn his dream into the realms of fantasy with a memorable strike that was later named as AFC's Goal of the Month. Surging down the right, the Iranian teenager fired a rocket of a shot from 35 yards out which beat Chuliang and screamed into the far top corner. Iran proceded to claim a fourth goal in the closing minutes for a famous comeback triumph.
The opening result proved decisive for the two teams as Iran edged China by just a point to finish as runners-up behind Saudi Arabia. Despite losing the subsequent play-off to Japan, they outmuscled Oceania winners Australia in a dramatic two-legged contest to seal their place at France 1998. Just as they did in Dalian, Iran again came from two down to draw 2-2 in Melbourne and qualify on away goals.
For Mahdavikia, the match announced his emergence on the international scene as one of Asia’s burgeoning starlets. From there, Mahdavikia began an illustrious career for both club and country during which he became the 2003 AFC Player of the Year, and featured significantly for Team Melli at France 1998 and Germany 2006.