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Ali Daei: The time was right

Ali Daei (L) celebrates a goal with Iran team-mate Ali Karimi

There is no other striker in Asia whose name is more synonymous with success than Ali Daei, the talisman of the Iranian national team over the past decade and holder of the world record for international goals. Certainly, there are few strikers across the globe who have remained prolific for such a long period of time and still been able to find the net consistently in the twilight of their playing careers, as Daei did so superbly.

The former Bayern Munich forward, who turned 38 on 29 March, scored a unmatched 109 international goals in 148 appearances, an achievement that many believe places him among the sport's all time greats such as Pele and Ferenc Puskas. Hard-working and humble, Daei also proved the perfect role model for his fellow professionals and aspiring youngsters.

No wonder, therefore, that news of Daei's retirement after leading Saipa to win the Iranian Pro League (IPL) crown on 28 May hit the headlines across the world. Fittingly, the Tehran side's player-coach had scored the second goal to seal a title-clinching 2-0 victory, caught up with the legendary striker to reflect upon his memorable past and look ahead to his future in football. Ali, not every footballer of the world can remain prolific until the age of 38, but you have proved what a dedicated player can achieve through consistent hard work for so many years. So why did you retire? Ali Daei : It was the right time to stop playing. Actually, I had thought about retiring at the most beautiful moment of my life. To be honest, I would have hung up my boots after last year's World Cup, but the decision was postponed for ten months due to something unexpected.

*You have had countless accolades under your belt, having won the AFC Asian Player of the Year award in 1999 and guided Iran to glory on so many occasions. What was the most memorable moment for you? * The 29th of November 1997 is still my dream. We had to play Australia over two legs in a play-off for the 1998 World Cup. We drew 1-1 in the first leg in Tehran and they looked the likely team to qualify. It certainly looked that way when they were two goals up in the return leg in Melbourne. But we rallied to make it 2-2 with two late goals to return to the World Cup finals after 20 years. It was unbelievable.

*Every player has his ups and downs. Despite the tremendous success you have achieved, was there anything you would feel sorry about? * I got injured in a group match in the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima, and I was consequently sidelined from the team to have an operation, which took a long time to recover from. It was a hard time for me. Seven years later we needed only to win [against Bahrain] to automatically qualify for 2002 World Cup, but we inexplicably lost. That was another really bitter pill to swallow.

*If we look back at your career, you started playing football later than most of your peers. How did you manage to catch up with them? * Firstly it was because of God's help, and secondly I have always been hard working and determined throughout my playing career. I put strong my trust in myself.

*Having scored over a century of international goals, can you reveal what your scoring secrets are? * Only the mothers can give birth to goalscorers. You need to be born a goalscorer. It is something about instinct but you have to improve yourself with training. And I am no exception.

*It is nonetheless amazing that you have kept fit and prolific with both the national team and at club level for nearly two decades. How did you manage to do that? * I have disregarded many enjoyable things to focus on training and playing, and it has become part of my daily life. I love football.

*You successfully steered Iran to two FIFA World Cup tournaments, France 1998 and Germany 2006. However, the team failed to progress beyond the group stages on both occasions. Do you think it was due to a shortage of talent in the squad or bad luck? * It was neither bad luck nor performing poorly. We should accept what our level of football is. In the group stage of France 1998, we could have won against Yugoslavia or Germany had we enjoyed a bit more fortune. But they were stronger than us, so we lost. It was simple.

*You guided Saipa to the league championship as player and coach, and you scored in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Mas ofKerman. Do you think this was a fitting end to your career? * It is not the end point of my career. I have bigger targets to achieve. Winning the title in my first coaching experience was great, but it is far from enough.

*Among the countless rivals your have played against, who do you respect most? Do you have any favorite player in the world? * I have respect for all. I have learned from many players and coaches how to play better. But if I had to single any player out, I would say it was the Brazilian Giovane Elber. He was Bayern Munich's main striker when I was there, and I used to love his football.

*In the current Iran side, who do you see as your natural successor? * Every player comes in, emerges, matures and retires, like me. I was in the team for a long time but I never regarded myself as someone extraordinary. And I am not a person who will be special in the future. Many Iranian players have great talent and potential but their success depends on God's will.

*What are your plans for the future? And have you thought about coaching the national team one day? * I have decided to stay on at Saipa as coach. I just want to concentrate on my team for now, I am not concerned about coaching Iran at the moment. That is perhaps something to think about in the future.

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