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Iran fanatics keep close eye on the Valley

Karim Bagheri is Tabriz's answer to Zidane and is desperate to prove it to Charlton, writes Jon Brodkin

Guardian

Saturday December 30, 2000

Karim Bagheri does not have his wife and young son's names tattooed on his body but when it comes to national profile Charlton's Iranian import is very much a David Beckham. If Posh and Becks think they can hardly move without the world knowing, they should consider life back home for Bagheri.

The day he found thousands of people gathered outside his house in Tabriz was just for starters. As the 26-year-old recounts the chaos caused by his trip to a market for the Iranian new year, it is hard not to smile. "One minute I was choosing my fish," he says, "and the next thing I turned round and there were hundreds and hundreds of people. Someone had noticed me, word had got round and they were coming up to me, asking for autographs, pushing and shoving just to touch me or shake my hand. The fanaticism is amazing.

"It's not such a problem when I go to a restaurant because the crowds can be controlled, but when I go shopping it can be difficult, particularly if I go with my family. As a result I don't tend to go out often. It's not that the fans are bad, it's just that they love the game and the players so much."

So far Bagheri has had a lower profile than he might have liked at the Valley. His father's death, international call-ups and injuries have restricted him to one appearance since his summer move from Iran but, as Charlton stutter, calls for his regular inclusion are growing.

It can hardly have escaped the fans' attention after the 5-0 Boxing Day defeat at West Ham that Bagheri, an attacking midfielder who can also play sweeper, has twice scored enough goals in a game for Iran to have won that match on his own. First came seven from open play in a 17-0 win over the Maldives to match the World Cup record set by Australia's Gary Cole. Last month he got six in a 19-0 win over Guam, but it was the strike that sparked Iran's late recovery from 2-0 down to draw against Terry Venables' Australia and qualify for France 98 which had adoring fans on his doorstep.

"On our way back from Melbourne we flew to Dubai and it was there I saw the scenes on television," he says through his interpreter. "Initially I wasn't sure if it was my home town but, having spoken to people there, I heard the whole town had gathered round my house and they were congratulating my family, giving out sweets and having a great time.

"There were similar scenes when my plane landed in Tabriz. It seemed more than half the town had arrived at the airport and they escorted me back to my house."

To be with his wife, Bagheri missed the celebrations in the national stadium, which saw the team arrive by helicopter and some 3,000 women ignore an official banning order to join the party as Iran rejoiced at reaching their first World Cup for 20 years.

He watched instead on television, and the country is following the progress of the first Iranian to play in the Premiership just as closely. Traffic to Charlton's official website almost doubled the day he signed for an initial £400,000 from Piroozi in August, and the club hope to play a summer friendly in Tehran.

"There has always been a huge football following in Iran," he says, "but in the last few years it has become more passionate. After 1996, when we finished third in the Asian Cup, it seemed to go to another level. Women started taking notice, and since then we have won the Asian championships and qualified for the World Cup.

"Go to any household and they're talking football. If they haven't got their kid playing they're talking tactics. You can see by the sheer number of fans who come to the stadiums how popular the game is."

The derby between Piroozi and Esteghlal is a case in point. "We're talking in excess of 120,000 in the stadium and the whole country virtually comes to a standstill," he says. "It's been known that people turn up two or three days before from all over Iran because tickets don't go on sale in advance."

Having also played at France 98 and for Armenia Bielefeld in the Bundesliga, Bagheri is not short of big-game experience. His performances in helping Bielefeld to promotion in 1998-99 earned him a place in Kicker magazine's team of the year, though his time in Germany ended sourly when he bought out his contract, and it was an agent's video, followed by a trial, which convinced Alan Curbishley to sign him.

"He's strong, good in the air, he can pass, put his foot in and he gets in the box and scores," Curbishley says. Yet the man known as the Franz Beckenbauer of Iran and the Iranian Zidane could easily have become the Desmond Douglas of Tabriz. He played county-level table tennis and volleyball but opted for football.

"My family weren't keen on me playing football," he says. "My mum wanted me to study and several pairs of shoes were torn up. But because of my love for the game I kept pursuing it. As a boy we played in the streets with any shoes we could grab. Nobody had the money to buy special boots and we used a plastic ball which we doubled up; we cut one up to cover another to give it a bit of weight."

Street football these days is doubtless out of the question; any game involving Bagheri would end 500,000-a-side.

     

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