From anonymous footballer to a nation’s idol: When on 16th October 2012, striker Reza Ghoochannejhad made his debut for Iran, almost none of the Team Melli supporters had ever heard of him. Reza, as he is regularly called on account of a surname that looks like a long lost anagram, left his homeland when still a child and settled in Holland, where he made the grade as a professional footballer. Despite his talent however, his career has been far from impressive, as the likes of Go Ahead Eagles, Emmen, Cambuur Leeuwarden (all Dutch second tier outfits) and Sint-Truiden commanding spots on his CV attest to.
No wonder then that Reza was not exactly a hero of Iranian football mad youngsters when he received his international call-up from coach Carlos Queiroz. Three goals in Iran’s last three games though have changed the Mashad-born striker’s destiny as he “put Iran in paradise”, in the words of the country’s media, with qualification for the 2014 World Cup secured.
Reza bagged the winning goal in a 1-0 away win in Ulsan against South Korea, the result which punched Iran’s ticket to Brazil. It was his third consecutive goal, after one two weeks previously against Qatar (a 1-0 win) and another in a 5-0 win over Lebanon. Nine points, with seven goals scored and none conceded, Reza was a key part in Iran finishing top of their group and qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The striker quickly had quickly turned from zero to hero, as he took his spot next to Iranian legends Hassan Rowshan, Khodadad Azizi and Vahid Hashemian. All three strikers were key to Iran’s three previous World Cup qualifications in 1978, 1998 and 2006 respectively. However, none of the trio enjoyed a comparable impact at the World Cup finals themselves; Rowshan even missed the tournament through injury. Reza though is sure he can break the pattern. “We have a team that are stronger than ever, with a perfect blend of youngsters and veterans. I think we could write history next year.”
Reza was “discovered” by Queiroz on 22nd October 2011 on a warm autumn afternoon at the Herman Vanderpoorten Stadium in Lier, Belgium. Home team Lierse suffered a 2-0 defeat to Sint-Truiden, thanks to a superb performance from the Iranian striker. “After the game Queiroz phoned me”, recalled Reza. “He said ‘I think you can help us and if you love your country you must play for it. It doesn’t matter how long you have lived away from your land'.”
It seems impossible to believe now that at the age of 21 Reza was close to hanging up his boots. “I spent eleven years with Heerenveen, first in their academy and later in the first team (in which he made his debut in April 2006 in a game against AZ Alkmaar, ed.). As the seasons passed by, I found it more difficult to concentrate both on my football career and my academic studies. Then I realised school was my priority. So in the summer of 2009, I dissolved my contract with Heerenveen.”
Just a few weeks after Reza had left the Frisian club he met former Oranje international Marc Overmars, who at the time was technical director of second tier outfit Go Ahead Eagles. “Marc told me that there was something in my movements which reminded him of a young Overmars. But I said I would only join them if I had permission to leave training 15 minutes early to go to university to attend some courses. I was studying jurisprudence and political theory. The club agreed and I joined as an amateur.”
Six months later Reza signed for another Frisian side, Cambuur Leeuwarden, who offered him a two-and-a-half-year deal. It took the Iranian only nine seconds into his debut to score, on 22nd January 2010 against Veendam. With the goal, the striker equalled the legendary Johan Cruyff as the fastest goalscorer ever in a game in professional football in Holland. The following season, Reza ended with double digits, having netted 13 goals in 24 games. “I was definitely turned from winger into first striker and I started to score regularly”, he explained. “My feeling in front of goal improved week by week.”
On 17th June 2011, Reza made the move to Sint-Truiden in the Belgian top flight. Despite the club being deeply involved in a struggle to avoid relegation, the striker performed well and quickly became one of the team’s key men. While his eleven goals were not enough to keep the Flemish side in the Jupiler Pro League, Reza’s qualities however did not go unnoticed by Iran’s coach Queiroz; it did though take more than six months for Reza to receive the paperwork to travel to Iran and play for the country of his birth.
Last January, Reza swapped clubs once again, moving from Sint-Truiden to Standard Liege, inking a contract until 2016. “A step up in my career”, was how the striker described joining the ten times Belgian top flight champions. “I have never played for a club that aimed for the title. This means more pressure, thus more experience gained: The best way to prepare for the World Cup.”
Off the pitch Reza is a man out of the ordinary. Forget a playstation, an iPad or fast cars; his hobbies are politics and playing the violin – he has played it every day since childhood. “I play classical music, but also hip-hop with my friends. I practice every day, because when I am 35 football will not be my job anymore and I would like to become a professional violinist.” For now however, being the idol of an entire nation should be enough.