Few Asian stars have reached as iconic a status among their fans as former France captain Zinedine Zidane. But not so in the case of Karim Bagheri, who became a living legend in Iran after steering his side to the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™.
Bagheri's earlier international retirement was somewhat more low-key than that of "Zizou", who hung up his boots in the wake of his glittering performances at Germany 2006. Bagheri, by contrast, made an abrupt retirement from the Iranian national team after their failed qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002.
But while the French legend has resisted the temptation to return to the pitch, Bagheri, known as "Iran's Zidane", was persuaded to rejoin Ali Daei's Team Melli for a recent FIFA World Cup qualifier against UAE. And there could not have been a more fitting way for the 34-year-old to mark his return that to score a crucial equalizer, in his first international game in six years.
Daei stunned even Iranian supporters when he announced Bagheri's call-up prior to the UAE game. But long-term followers of Iranian football know all too well that the decision would reignite a very fond memory. Daei and Bagheri made their debuts for Team Melli on the same day, 6 June 1993, and so began a fruitful eight-year international comradeship.
It didn't take too long for them to assume leading roles with Iran. While Daei embarked on a long goal hunt which eventually made him one of the world's all-time scoring greats, Bagheri ran the show in midfield, and developed a knack for scoring crucial goals.
Their partnership culminated in Iran's remarkable qualification for France 1998, when both played key roles in the decisive match. Iran were on the brink of elimination in the make-or-break playoff against Australia, two goals down with only 20 minutes to play. But Bagheri rose to the occasion to pull one back for Iran on 71 minutes, before Daei perfectly sent Khodadad Azizi through for the equalizer that doomed Terry Venables' Socceroos to elimination on away goals.
With their international experiences together still fresh in the memory, it was only natural that Daei should turn to Bagheri when midfield maestro Ali Karimi rejected his international call-up. "Karim is a great player, and we will be able to rely on him against UAE," Daei said at the time.
Bagheri's return sparked excitement among fans and players alike. Mehdi Mahdavikia, the only member of the current team who had figured prominently alongside Bagheri in qualifying for France 1998, led the welcome. "Karim has a wealth of international experience, and it will be an honour for me to return the captain's armband to him," said the Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder.
Masoud Shojaei, who captained Iran through Asia's third qualifying round, was another one to show his admiration. "I used to watch Bagheri playing on television, and it's wonderful to be playing alongside him now."
Bagheri, for his part, lived up to expectations, as he nodded home Shojaei's cross ten minutes from time to cancel out Abdulraheem Jumaa's early goal. In the dying minutes, he came close to setting up a winner for Iran, when his deft lob sent Gholamreza Rezaei clear, with only UAE keeper Majed Nasser to beat. But the Saba Battery forward hesitated, and the chance went begging.
Never mind. The veteran had made his point, and Iran will face their remaining qualifiers with the utmost confidence, in the knowledge that the legend has returned...and looks as good as ever.