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Ali Daei: The Iranian icon set to be dethroned by Cristiano Ronaldo

Portugal's soccer superstar is closing in on international goalscoring record. Who is the Iran striker he is poised to surpass?
Ali Daei scores a penalty against Bahrain in an Asian Cup match on 6 August 2004 (AFP/File photo)

Portugal's soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is poised to break yet another footballing record. 

The 36-year-old is one goal away from becoming the outright leading goalscorer in the history of men's international football, having matched the previous record of 109 goals earlier this week, during matches at Euro 2020. 

But it is not Argentina's Lionel Messi or Brazil's Pele who is set to be dethroned. It is Iran's towering, moustachioed centre forward, Ali Daei.

"Congratulations to Cristiano Ronaldo," Daei said, after the Portuguese striker scored two goals against France to equal his record.

"I am honoured that this remarkable achievement will belong to Ronaldo - great champion of football and caring humanist who inspires and impacts lives throughout the world."

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The pair have crossed paths once before: Daei was an unused substitute in a 2006 World Cup clash between Iran and Portugal, as a fresh-faced Ronaldo scored his 12th international goal. His ageing Iranian counterpart would call time on a glittering international career just days later. 

As his time at the top of the goalscoring charts nears its end, we take a look at the eventful story - on and off the pitch - of an Iranian icon. 

Goal-scoring giant

Born to Iranian Azeri parents in the ancient northwestern city of Ardabil, Daei's father did not want him to pursue football until he graduated from high school. 

''I used to leave home without my football uniform, and my mother would smuggle it out for me so that I could play,'' he told the New York Times in 1998.

Daei gained a degree in metallurgical engineering, and began his club career at 19 at his local club Esteghlal Ardabil, before playing for a string of clubs in Tehran.    

In a four-year spell at Bank Tejarat, the striker, with a commanding height of 1.93 metres, caught the attention of the Iranian national team. He was called up to "Team Melli" in 1993,  bursting onto the scene with seven goals in World Cup qualification matches. 

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Iran's Ali Daei plays against Japan in a World Cup qualifying game on 16 November 1997 (AFP)

Compulsory military service stunted his progress over the next two years, denying him a transfer to the Japanese J-League. He was then advised by the national team coach to join one of Iran's biggest football clubs, Persepolis, if he wanted to rejoin Team Melli.

Returning after a three-year hiatus, Daei scored 22 international goals in 1996, becoming Iran's all-time leading goalscorer. This included a four-goal haul against Nepal, and five goals in a thrashing of Sri Lanka. 

At the 1996 Asian Cup quarter final, Daei scored four goals in 22 minutes against South Korea, in arguably one of the best displays of his career.

His impressive form earned him a brief move to Al Sadd in Qatar, before starting a five-year stint in the German Bundesliga. At Arminia Bielefeld, he scored seven goals in 26 appearances, which was enough to land a transfer to giants Bayern Munich in 1998. 

The 'most politically charged' World Cup game ever

That summer, Daei's goals helped his national team qualify for its first World Cup appearance in 20 years, and its second ever. 

Despite his goalscoring prowess, the striker never managed to net in international football's biggest tournament. But he was involved in Iran's 1998 group stage match against the United States, widely seen as the "most politically charged" match in World Cup history. 

Relations between Washington and Tehran had deteriorated in the two decades following the 1979 Islamic revolution, which saw the fall of Iran's pro-West Shah, the year-long Iranian hostage crisis, and American support for Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran War. 

iran us world cup 1998
Iran's players hand white roses to their US opponents ahead of a World Cup group match in Lyon on 21 June 1998 (AFP)

World Cup regulations stated that the Iranians, as "Team B," should walk towards the US players for the pre-match handshake. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini forbade Daei and his teammates from doing so, so a compromise was negotiated by soccer's international governing body FIFA for the Americans to initiate the greeting. 

The players did not get caught up in any hostilities, with Iran presenting white roses to each US player as a sign of peace, before both sides posed for a joint team photo.

Iran won the game 2-1, with Daei providing a crucial assist for Mehdi Mahdavikia's 83rd minute goal. 

Breaking the same record twice

Back in Germany, the Iranian striker struggled to get playing time for his club.

He was an unused substitute in the 1999 Champions League final when Manchester United launched a famous late comeback to beat Bayern Munich 2-1. 

Following that match, Daei moved to Hertha Berlin for three years, where he scored important goals against Chelsea and AC Milan, but once again found it difficult to hold down a regular starting place. 

He subsequently moved back to Asia, spending one year at UAE-based Al Shabab, before returning to Iran for spells at Persepolis, Saba Battery and Saipa. 

While he enjoyed mixed success at club level, the forward continued his international goalscoring spree well into his 30s, edging towards breaking the world record. 

ali daei iran mexico
Ali Daei captains Iran in a World Cup group match against Mexico on 11 June 2006 (AFP)

In 2003, during a match against North Korea, Daie thought he had gone level with Hungary's Ferenc Puskas on 84 goals after scoring a penalty.

But celebrations were put on pause when a firecracker thrown onto the pitch by an Iranian fan struck a North Korean player, prompting the entire team to walk off in protest. The game was subsequently abandoned, with Iran handed an automatic 3-0 win. Unfortunately for Daei, though, his record-equalling goal was chalked off. 

Just days later, two goals in home and away fixtures against Lebanon finally saw the Iranian match - then break - Puskas's 47-year-old world record, writing his name into football folklore. 

Daei would go on to become the first man to score a century of goals for their national team. 

He finally retired following the 2006 World Cup. 

The politics of management

Daei went on to launch a successful sportswear and equipment brand and embark on a career as a football coach. 

After a solid start to his managerial career with Saipa, he was appointed as the manager of the Iran national team in March 2008.

But Daei's time in charge of the team he excelled in as a player was to last only a year: he was sacked in 2009 after losing a crucial World Cup qualifying match against Saudi Arabia. 

He accused then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of being responsible for his dismissal, and 10 years later refused to sit next to him on a plane. 

Ahmadinejad was at the March 2009 game, and had hoped that a win against on- and off-pitch rivals Saudi Arabia would help him gain political capital ahead of forthcoming presidential elections. 

Iran's government has long been accused of interfering in football, with FIFA briefly suspending the national team over alleged state meddling in 2006.

ronaldo celebrating france
Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after scoring against France to equal Ali Daei's international goalscoring record (AFP)

Daie managed several Iranian clubs, including Persepolis, in the following years. 

During his time in charge at Rah Ahan in 2012, he sustained head injuries after being involved in a serious car accident while driving from the city of Isfahan to Tehran. Well wishes poured in from across the global football community, including from then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

In 2017, he returned to coaching his former team Saipa. Extraordinarily, following his dismissal in 2019, Daei revealed that Saipa's CEO, Mostafa Modabber, was operating under a pseudonym, and was in fact Ghafoor Darjezi, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander and former director of security at the state television station.

What Daei did not know was that Darjezi is also thought to be a pseudonym, for Amir Mansour Bozorgian-Asl, whose name appears in German court filings in connection to the 1989 assassination of Iranian Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou. 

Journalist and commentator Kambiz Foroohar believes that Daei's inadvertent unmasking of Saipa's CEO has resulted in the icon being blacklisted from jobs within Iranian football.

Despite the political fallout, Daei remains a huge superstar in Iran, and has attracted increasing media attention as Ronaldo inches closer to his tally.

"I am delighted that Ronaldo will be the one who is doing it," the 52-year-old said earlier this week. "My record being touched by a player like Ronaldo feels like another record to me."

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