This month’s Hazfi Cup final saw Persepolis and Iran fans dealt a double blow. The Tehran giants lost not only the game and thus the cup to Sepahan, but also a pair of the club's most notable names. Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karimi, whom won the AFC Player of the Year award in 2003 and 2004 respectively, announced their retirement from football after the match.
"I was really interested in ending my career with a cup, however this didn't happen," said 35-year-old Mahdavikia, arguably Iran's most successful overseas-based player who made 208 appearances for Hamburg. “I am really sorry for the fans who came to the stadium," he said, referencing 85,000 spectators who turned out at Tehran's Azadi Stadium for the match.
Mahdavikia is among the country's legendary players having represented Iran in two FIFA World Cups™. Inheriting the captain's armband from Ali Daei after Germany 2006, he led Team Melli to within three points of qualification for South Africa 2010 going into the concluding qualifier against hosts Korea Republic.
The decider, unfortunately, ended in a 1-1 draw, Park Jisung scored on 82 minutes to cancel out Masoud Shojaei's opener and condemn Iran to a heart-breaking elimination. That proved to be the last Team Melli game for Mahdavikia, who is Iran's fourth most-capped international player with 111 appearances.
The following year saw Mahdavikia, nicknamed Der Teppich (The Carpet) by German fans for his smooth dribbling style, move back home from Eintracht Frankfurt. After short spells with Steel Azin and Damash, he returned to Persepolis last year where his illustrious career had begun.
Captain Karimi says farewell
If Mahdavikia's retirement brought the curtain down on the golden generation that made it to France 1998, then Karimi's announcement saw Iran coach Carlos Queiroz lose a captain. Upon his appointment as Iran coach in 2011, the former Portugal manager called Karimi back to the national team, naming him joint captain alongside Javad Nekonam.
"I am very happy with Karimi and Nekounam," Queiroz told FIFA.com last year. "Both players have valuable international experience which they are trying to share with the rest of the team. They have been playing key educational roles in the group. "
As the coach said, the former Bayern Munich midfielder featured significantly, including being on target in a 4-0 defeat of Maldives, as Iran stormed into Asia's final qualifying round for Brazil 2014. Surprise 1-0 losses to Lebanon and Uzbekistan last year, though, put Iran's campaign in jeopardy.
Thus, in a sense, Karimi's retirement came as something unexpected, with Iran, who trail leaders Uzbekistan by four points, faced with a trio of crucial qualifiers next month. They travel to Doha to challenge Qatar on 4 June, before entertaining Lebanon a week later. Awaiting them in the concluder is none other than Korea Republic.
"I announce my retirement from football tonight," the 34-year-old Karimi said after the Hazfi Cup final, "I think it’s time for me to concentrate on my personal life. I also quit my international career." Karimi’s last appearance was last November's home loss to Uzbekistan.
Shocked they may be, though, the Iranian fans know they owe thanks to the player, who accumulated 38 goals from 127 caps across 14 years for Iran as the country's third top international goal-scorer, behind only Daei and Karim Bagheri. Having won Asia's top individual accolade in 2004, he was nominee for last year's award following some brilliant displays with both club and country.
Queiroz is, for his part, all too aware his side must win all remaining matches if they are to secure one of the group's two automatic spots for Brazil 2014.
"Three crucial matches are ahead of us," Queiroz said. "We will reach our goal or lose everything. But our dream will come true and it’s time to be united. My message to you is 'fight in the fields'."