For Alireza Haghighi, 29 November 1997 was the day that changed everything. At 12.45, along with the rest of his country, the young Iranian, then ten years old, readied himself in front of the TV and waited nervously. The game about to kick off was the second leg of the Intercontinental Play-off between Australia and Iran, with a place at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™ the prize at stake.
At the final whistle, Haghighi and his fellow countrymen took to the streets. Not in despair, but in joy: Iran had just secured a return to world football's most prestigious competition after an absence of 20 years. That moment marked a turning point in the life of the aspiring young goalkeeper, who would soon become one of the brightest stars of Iranian football.
Haghighi's meteoric ascent began at the celebrated Tehran-based club Persepolis, where he rose through the youth ranks before making his first senior start at the age of just 16. He now plays in Europe for Rubin Kazan, having signed for the Russians in early 2012.
Reflecting on his journey so far in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the 24-year-old goalkeeper said: "I was lucky enough to start my career at one of the biggest and most popular clubs in Iran. My move to Rubin Kazan in Russia represents a big step forward for me."
Seizing the opportunity
As Haghighi watched Iran secure their first win at a FIFA World Cup during France 1998, little could he have imagined that, less than a decade later, he would be making a dramatic save to deny national-team hero Ali Daei. But that is exactly what happened when, in his debut for Perspolis against Saipa on 17 October 2006, he thwarted the Iranian legend from the penalty spot.
Haghighi, who had just come off the bench following the sending-off of first-choice goalkeeper Farshad Karimi, recalls the moment fondly: "I was only 16 at the time and I was delighted to be playing in my first game for Persepolis. Saving that penalty from a legend like Ali Daei set my motivation soaring."
The youngster seized another opportunity in the 2008/09 season, with injuries to Masiaj Mimarzadeh and Mahdi Faizy allowing him to establish himself as Persepolis' first-choice keeper. Two years later he was entrusted the captain's armband, becoming the youngest player ever to skipper the Tehran giants.
Looking back at that opportune turn of events, Haghighi said: "In the end, it's the small details that make the difference. In the German national team, Manuel Neuer got his chance at South Africa 2010 after an injury to Rene Adler. He [Neuer] is still their first-choice goalkeeper today. In my case I see it as my destiny, and a fulfilment of the divine will.
"I was very proud to be the youngest captain of Persepolis, and to have been preferred to several big-name players," he added. "That moment gave me great encouragement as my career continued."
Haghighi is the first Iranian goalkeeper to join a Europe-based club, having signed a four-year contract with Rubin Kazan on 14 January 2012. And although he has yet to make a single competitive appearance for the two-time Russian champions, the towering goalkeeper is confident that his moment will come.
"I wanted to play for a major European side and I was very happy, considering my age, to have found a club like this," he said. "I've had some good times with the team and I've really enjoyed the training sessions, which are more intense than in Asia. I just need a bit of time and an opportunity. I'm sure I'll find my place in the team when the time comes."
"Russia has the largest pool of talented goalkeepers in the world," added Haghighi, a keen admirer of Spain's Iker Casillas. "Hopefully I'll show that I'm responsible, and be a good representative for my country. That will then help to open doors for other goalkeepers wishing to move to Europe."
As Haghighi explains, much of his progress can be attributed to former Iran goalkeeper Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh, who captained his country at France 1998. Abedzadeh coached Haghighi in his early days at Persepolis, and the promising youngster considers the so-called Eagle of Asia a major influence on his career development to date.
"As well as the penalty save from Ali Daei, I'm also very proud of having worked with Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh, who is a great man," he said. "I learned many things from him, and I'm putting them into practice now in Russia. He pushed me forward and he's not just a coach to me, but a father figure too."
Haghighi's career may still be young, but he already has high ambitions: "I'm aiming to qualify for the World Cup, and realise the dream of all football players. You never know what the future holds, but I hope I can follow in Abedzadeh's footsteps one day and match his achievements."
Playing at a FIFA World Cup and emulating the iconic Abedzadeh would, indeed, be some achievement. And if it were to happen, Haghighi would undoubtedly see his name listed alongside the all-time greats of Iranian football.