The story of Alireza Jahanbakhsh has been shaped by the FIFA World Cup™.
In career terms, the 2014 edition – when he played a key role for Iran, aged just 20 – represents the pinnacle of the winger’s achievements thus far. But the tournament had began influencing the direction of Jahanbakhsh’s life long before he travelled to Brazil.
“I have a strong memory of watching the 2006 World Cup at home with my family," he explained to FIFA.com. "As we were watching a game, my father turned to me and said, ‘This is my biggest dream – to see you one day playing wearing that shirt at a World Cup’. I was just a kid at the time; neither of us could have imagined I would do just that only eight years later. But his dream definitely became my dream, and I was really determined to do whatever I could to make it happen.”
That determination led to some tough and courageous decisions. Notable among them was Jahanbakhsh opting, aged just 19, to leave Iran and head to a little-known club in an unfamiliar country and continent. Accepting an offer from Dutch side NEC was by no means his only option, or the obvious path to take. The teenager had grown up in a tight-knit family unit, and his mother “cried a lot” when the move to Europe began to take shape. But when it was asked of him whether this was a necessary step, Jahanbakhsh was firm and unequivocal.
“I knew I had to leave; that it would be so much easier to make the national team if I moved to Europe,” he said. “When I was playing in Iran, I was doing well but I was playing for quite a small club (Damash Gilan) and it was hard to break through. I also knew that Carlos Queiroz really valued the guys who went to Europe and learned how the players there eat, how they train – all the elements that help a footballer reach his full potential.
"So when I had an offer to go to Holland, I didn’t even hesitate. I knew I had to do it and, sure enough, within a few months I was in the national team. Of course it was tough, leaving my family and coming over at 19 to such a different country and culture. But I never doubted for one second that it was necessary to fulfil my ambitions.”
An ambassador in Brazil
The fact that, within a year, he was on the way to a World Cup – having been uncapped prior to his move – justified all those initial sacrifices. It also spoke for the seemingly effortless way in which Jahanbakhsh adapted to Dutch life and football, becoming an almost overnight sensation. Right from his first season, and even as perennial strugglers NEC battled and eventually succumbed to relegation, the young Iranian winger emerged as one of the most league’s most exciting talents.
Second only to Memphis Depay in the running for the Johan Cruyff Award, which recognises the Eredivisie’s best young player, Jahanbakhsh built on that debut campaign by earning player of the year awards for both his club and the Dutch second tier the following season. The consequences of such achievements were a hotly contested race for his signature, won by AZ at a cost of €2m, and a place in Iran’s starting line-up at Brazil 2014.
“The World Cup was amazing,” he reflected. “Just to be there at such a young age, after a few months playing in Europe, was incredible. But to actually play, and to experience that incredible atmosphere from the field, was like a dream for me. I also learned so, so much, testing myself in that kind of environment against some of the best players in the world. That’s experience I hope to bring to the next World Cup and hopefully help us go a step further, because we were unlucky not to qualify from our group in Brazil.”
Iran’s campaign would ultimately turn on the stunning stoppage-time winner from Lionel Messi that denied them a hard-earned point against Argentina. Carlos Queiroz’s team acquitted themselves well nonetheless, with Jahanbakhsh mindful throughout of his father’s advice: ‘Remember the 80 million Iranians watching from home’.
“I will always do that,” he said, “because I remember being one of those 80 million, watching an Iran team, hoping and praying that they would do well. When it came to the World Cup, I brought that emotion and tried to take it on the field with me in a positive way. I’m a really proud Iranian – I put a lot into fighting for that flag – and I’m emotional too. I feel a lot of responsibility and a huge motivation to make my family and country proud whenever I play for the national team. And I feel their support for me too.”
Shutouts and success
Jahanbakhsh is equally conscious of, and grateful for, the backing of his coach, Carlos Queiroz. “He’s someone I really enjoy working with,” said the young AZ star. “He brought me in when I was just 19 and put his faith in me, so I have a lot to thank him and his assistants for. He’s a coach who always wants to see young players improving and developing and, for me – as someone who always wants to learn more – it’s been perfect. I really enjoy the relationship we have and I know the people in Iran are really happy with his work.”
There is, in truth, little scope for complaint. Queiroz, having led Iran to one World Cup, now has them well placed to reach another. With five games played in their third-round preliminary section, the team are perched at the top and, remarkably, have yet to concede a single goal.
“We defend extremely well as a unit and that shows in those figures,” said Jahanbakhsh. “But I think we get the balance right too between attack and defence, and the players we have in forward areas also give us a lot of good options. Right now, we’re in a good position to make the World Cup.
"Coming up, though, we have two very important games – Qatar away and China at home – and winning those can really help take us where we want to go. One thing is for sure: we’re in good shape and have nothing to fear. We have a lot of quality players, good organisation and a strong spirit. I hope that we’ll be able to show all of that in Russia next year.”
Iran, like their young winger, are a team on the up. If current indications are anything to go by, expect the World Cup to be as central as ever to Jahanbakhsh’s unfolding story.