A little over five months after announcing his international retirement, 2004 AFC Player of the Year Ali Karimi is set to make a return to the international arena after the Iranian legend was recently included in an expanded 41-man roster by new coach Afshin Ghotbi. Charged with helping Iran's 2010 FIFA World Cup™ fortunes, the 30-year-old midfielder is expected to take the field for his first international match in over a year for his nation's next outing on 6 June against second-placed Korea DPR.
With just three matches to play in Asia's final round, and with Team Melli languishing in fourth, Iran is unquestionably facing one of the most critical periods in their FIFA World Cup qualifying history. However with the talismanic Karimi back to pull the strings, the Iranian fans will have good reason to believe that they can turn the corner to book their fourth appearance at the global extravaganza at South Africa 2010.
The pivotal man
Karimi emerged as one of Iran's most talented players in their qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan 2002. Despite Iran's failure to reach Asia's first global showpiece, Karimi made his name as the ‘midfield wizard', mesmerizing fans across the continent with his dazzling dribbling, surging runs and an uncanny ability to score important goals.
Four years later Karimi had developed into a driving force behind Iran's successful bid for Germany 2006. He played a key role in Iran's crucial 2-1 win over Japan in the qualifying final round, perfectly crossing for Vahid Hashemian to grab the winner.
He went on to showcase his creative talents in the next back-to-back against Korea DPR, setting up Javad Nekounam to seal an away 2-0 win before steering Iran to a solitary-goal win at home. These results laid a solid foundation for Iran's campaign, with another three points against Bahrain in the penultimate match sealing qualification with a game to spare.
Yearning for a return
The outspoken Karimi received a five-month suspension last May for criticising the national team and five months later he announced his retirement from international football. With Iran struggling in the qualifying finals, the former Bayern Munich playmaker decided to end his self-imposed international exile under new coach Afshin Ghotbi. Prior to this, Ghotbi, coach of Persepolis at the time, also brought Karimi back to play with the Iranian giants on loan from Qatar's Al-Sailiya where he captained the club to the Iranian championship.
"We have tried to invite the best and most experienced players to shore up our defense and offense, and needless to say, Karimi is one of the greatest players Iran has," said Ghotbi who will be hoping Karimi will soon be fully recovered from a recent ankle injury.
Iran will play three warms-up against Syria, Vietnam and China before travelling to Pyongyang to challenge Korea DPR in a game they must win. Despite the formidable task, with Karimi likely to be fully fit and looking to boss the midfield alongside the likes of Mehdi Mahdavikia and Karim Bagheri, Ghotbi believes they can come away with the much-needed points.
"It is said that the Koreans will host us on artificial turf but it doesn't matter at all where we play," says the 45-year old Ghotbi. "We will have to beat them even if playing on the moon."