Iran had Ali Daei and their German-based contingent to thank for their participation at the last FIFA World Cup™ finals in Germany, but the scoring legend, who himself spent five years with Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin, has recently put his faith in a midfield pair who are plying their trade in Spain.
28-year-old Javad Nekounam and 24-year-old Masoud Shojaei, who have been catching the eye with Spanish La Liga side Osasuna, started together against United Arab Emirates on 2 June in a crucial qualifying game for South Africa 2010, with the former wearing the captain's armband. The game ended in a draw, despite Iran's territorial dominance, but the Osasuna duo did a brilliant creative job in the middle of the park.
In the next game, against the same opposition, Iran secured their first win in the third qualifying stage. Shojaei set up Ferydoon Zandi for the only goal, a result which sent Iran to the top of the group. With both Nekounam and Shojaei providing cannonballs as well as scoring crucial goals, Daei's charges rediscovered their firepower, and comfortably won the remaining two matches to progress into the last ten as section winners.
Nekounam has quickly become a key figure in Iran's campaign, providing both the quality and the experience in midfield that the Daei requires. "Javad is a very talented player, and he has gained a lot of experience in Spain," Daei told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. ". As for Shojaei, he is a very technically gifted player, and his creativity has proved very important for the side."
He can defend, create, and score crucial goals. And he is especially strong in the air
Daei saw his faith repaid as the midfield duo cooperated in securing Iran a precious away point against arch-rivals Saudi Arabia in their opening match of the final qualifying round on 6 September. Saudi Arabia were a goal up with only nine minutes to go, but the La Liga pair came to the rescue, Shojaei heading a corner into the path of Nekounam, who nodded home from close range to snatch the draw.
"Javad's position is defensive midfielder, but he is a versatile player, and I always urge him to push further up," Daei explained. "The goal he scored against Saudi Arabia was a beauty."
From team-mate to boss
Only two years ago Daei played together with the midfield duo at Germany 2006, but now, as coach, his relationship with the pair is somewhat different. Daei, however, believes that the switch of roles hasn't hampered his rapport with the two.
"Yes, we have played many games together for Iran, and we are friends. I have the same good relations with all other players of our team. But it's certainly an advantage for me, as a coach, to have played with them in the past."
Iran play host to Korea DPR in the next fixture, and Daei believes the game at Tehran's Azadi Stadium will be a tough test, and a must-win game if they are to take one of the group's two automatic qualifying spots. Not surprisingly, he is pinning high hopes on the Osasuna pair.
"They have both proved how important they can be for the team, and we will need them to continue their impressive form against the Koreans," he concluded.