A true star is made for hard times. Looking back at Iran's four qualifying successes for the FIFA World Cup™, it seems that each time Team Melli's hopes are hanging by a thread there is a hero who duly rises to the occasion to rescue their campaign.
In reaching their maiden global showpiece at Argentina 1978, the West Asians were indebted to the legendary Hassan Rowshan, whose goals and assists helped his country through Asia's mammoth qualification. Then on the road to France 1998, trailing hosts Australia 2-1 with little more than 15 minutes remaining in the decisive AFC/OFA play-off, the livewire Khodadad Azizi scored the equaliser which sealed their berth at the expense of the Socceroos. Vahid Hashemian would be the next savior, firing Iran through to Germany 2006 with his powerful headers and shooting.
All these players had been established stars before their qualifying heroics. When it came to their bid for Brazil 2014, though, it was an unsung forward that took up the rescuer’s mantle. Reza Ghoochannejhad, a relatively unknown Belgian-based striker, revived Iran's fortunes with his first qualifying goal in this June's 1-0 victory in Qatar, before being on target again a week later in their 4-0 home defeat of Lebanon. The 25-year-old Standard Liege man would maintain his form against hosts Korea Republic seven days later, scoring the only goal of the concluder which booked their passage as group winners.
"It is an honour to play for Iran, whenever and wherever," Ghoochannejhad told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "I am blessed for having this opportunity, especially now that we can represent our country at the World Cup in Brazil."
Salute to Queiroz
Born in Iran but growing up in the Netherlands, Gucci, as he is now affectionately known to fans, was a fresh face on the Asian scene when he was called up by coach Carlos Queiroz last October. Impressed by his performance in a Belgian League game against Lierse last season, the former Portugal and Real Madrid boss, then scouring Europe for players eligible to play for Iran, immediately made contact with the player.
"It was a surprise that Mr. Queiroz called me," Gucci recalled. "The coach told me 'playing for your country should be an honour if you love Iran, and I think you can help us'. What he said was simple, but after hanging up the phone I immediately called my parents telling them the good news."
The coach's appreciation of him was such that he started Reza in his international debut in a crucial home qualifier against Korea Republic, which Iran won 1-0. Even after their disappointing home defeat to Uzbekistan, a result which put Iran's campaign in jeopardy, Queiroz maintained his faith in Ghoochannejhad. And he was eventually proved right, with Gucci scoring three goals in as many games across two weeks, including two match-winners, as Iran progressed in unexpected fashion.
"It was a difficult campaign with a lot of ups and downs," he reflected. "We lost two important games against Lebanon and Uzbekistan. But we defied all odds to make it. We have a good team, we respect and help each other. Certainly, it was impossible for me to score the goals without support of my team-mates."
Having seen his meteoric rise to prominence, he paid tribute to the man who guided Iran through and showed unwavering belief in him. He said: "As Iranians, we should be thankful to coach Queiroz. He's the main reason for this success. He was always there (with us), in both good and bad times. He never ran away from his responsibilities."
With his decisive goals and man-of-the-match performances, Ghoochannejhad, now Iran's golden boy, has already been likened to the aforementioned legends. Particularly, his goal against Korea Republic was reminiscent of Azizi's golden moment in Melbourne 16 years ago.
Indeed, the goal against the Koreans was the embodiment of Gucci's predatory talents. With Iran largely on the back foot and approaching the final half-hour, Gucci stole the ball from Kim Younggwon, darted to the edge of the penalty area, before unleashing a trademark left-footed shot past the goalkeeper.
"I love scoring goals," said the cool-headed marksman, who has achieved some 50 goals with a series of clubs in the Netherlands and Belgium. "It is my job to put the ball into the net. I have scored goals everywhere but I am still working hard to improve my skills."
With his first FIFA World Cup beckoning, Gucci is optimistic that Iran can continue to make history. He said: "I am really confident about our team. There is a perfect balance in this squad, with youth talents and experienced players. We can achieve more as long as we stay united as a group."