Iran captain Mehdi Mahdavikia is approaching a decade of Bundesliga service. This, his tenth season in Germany's top flight, is being spent with Eintracht Frankfurt, after an eight-year spell with Hamburger SV featuring 26 goals in 211 appearances, and a single season with VfL Bochum. But even after all this time, does the 30-year-old ever feel any residual homesickness? "You always miss your home country. Iran is a wonderful place and it's where I have my family and friends. But I'm also very happy in Germany, because it's great here and the people are all very nice," the player told FIFA.com.
Germany has clearly become a home-from-home for Mahdavikia, doubtless the reason he chose to remain in the country last summer. A crowd hero from his successful spell with Hamburg, he opted for a switch to Bundesliga rivals Eintracht. "[Frankfurt chairman] Heribert Bruchhagen and [coach] Friedhelm Funkel were very keen to have me," the man capped 103 times by Iran explained. "Eintracht are an ambitious club with a fantastic stadium, big and passionate crowds, and a good reputation. Eintracht Frankfurt are on the way up. I'd like to help the club get back to where it belongs."
Before the winger-cum-full-back arrived in the Bundesliga with VfL Bochum in 1999, he collected Iranian championship honours with leading club Persepolis Teheran in 1996, 1997 and 1999. He is ideally placed to analyse the main differences between Iranian and German football: "Obviously, it's a lot more professional in the Bundesliga. The stadiums are more modern, and the league boasts the highest quality wherever you look. You'll go under if you don't give it everything in every match. You can never take a breather, you have to stay focused. But passion for the game is just as great in Iran as it is in Germany. The Iranian people love their football, and the grounds are always full."
As if to prove Mahdavikia's point, 45,000 showed up to watch Iran entertain Syria in Teheran in a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier in early February, although the vast majority went home disappointed after the Bundesliga-based captain and his men failed to do better than a scoreless draw. "Obviously, we wanted to open with a win and we were gutted afterwards. But we have to pick ourselves up and look to the future. We want a place at the finals, and every member of the team will give his all for the cause," the player commented, declaring himself "very, very proud" of his position as national team captain.
A glance at Asian qualifying Group 5 suggests Iran must stand a reasonable chance of a fourth appearance at the FIFA World Cup™ finals. Group rivals United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have each made it to the finals once, but many years have passed since those moments of triumph. "But they're tough opponents," Mahdavikia warned, "we're well aware we have to take them seriously. You have to give more than 100 per cent in every match when you're aiming at a huge target like getting to the finals. It won't be easy, but we'll make it."
After seeing their heroes contest the 1978, 1998 and 2006 tournaments, Iranian fans would be thrilled to back their team at the 2010 event, especially after a surprise early exit to Korea Republic at the quarter-final stage of the AFC Asia Cup 2007. "Obviously, I don't have happy memories of the tournament because we went there expecting to do much better. But success and failure are all part of football. Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. Our focus now is on qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa," Mahdavikia promised.
After Korea Republic's storming run at the 2002 finals in Korea/Japan, perhaps Iran could be the next Asian nation to make the semi-finals of a FIFA World Cup finals. "I hope we qualify for the finals, and once we're there, maybe we'll surprise a few people," the 2003 Asian Player of the Year told FIFA.com. "But provided they qualify, Japan, South Korea or China will prepare very well and continue their development, although the favourites will once again be the Europeans and perhaps a handful of African nations."