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So, here’s a question for you? Who do you think has scored the most goals in international football? Pelé? Nope, not even close. Ronaldo? Closer, but no cigar. Ferenc Puskás I hear some of the more ‘mature’ voices claim. Well, not quite, although he was the record holder until 2003.
The record is now held by the man in the title of this piece, Iran’s Ali Daei. While other luminaries granted entry into the pantheon of the greatest international forwards of all time, would consider a century of goals on football’s biggest stage as something beyond their grasp, except in far-fetched dreams of whimsical fancy, Daei has passed that, and then some. In fact, in a career with the Iran national team covering 1993 to 2007, he notched no less than 109 goals for Team Melli in just less than 150 games. It’s a phenomenal record and, when compared to his club striking record, 112 goals in 287 league games, suggests that he was one of those players possessing the rare quality of finding his natural goalscoring habitat on the international field.
Daei’s club career began in Iran playing for Esteghlal Ardabil, Taxirani F.C and Bank Tejarat F.C., the latter two clubs based in Tehran. It was with Bank Tejarat F.C. that a nascent talent for putting the ball into the back of the net first bloomed into full flower. In a four-year stay with the club, he scored 49 goals in 75 games. If the number of games seems relatively low, averaging at less than 20 per season, it’s a trend that perpetuates throughout his career as league structures, injuries and international calls drew him away from the domestic game on a regular basis.
After moving on to another Tehran club, Persepolis, and then Al-Sadd in Qatar, brief stays with clubs became a regular feature of his ongoing career. It was during his time with Persepolis that a penchant for goals whilst playing for his country began to show, as 22 strikes in just 18 internationals persuaded the Qatari club to invest in his talents. The big showcase for his talents was the Asian Cup held in December. Iran progressed to the semi-finals, before losing out to Saudi Arabia in a penalty shootout, but Daei stamped his credentials on the international stage during the tournament, notching eight goals and later being selected as runner-up for the Asian Footballer of the Year award.
As was becoming, and would continue to be, the norm, Daei’s time in Qatar was short, 10 goals in just 16 games emphasised that he was a marksman of talent, and Bundesliga club, Arminia Bielefeld, decided to take the plunge in 1997, and see if he could deliver in European football. The club had recently been promoted to the Bundesliga and saw the Iranian as the man whose goals would keep them in Germany’s top tier. He would score seven goals in 25 league games for Die Arminen, but their struggle to maintain status was stymied by a poor late-season run, and the club was relegated. On the international stage, as would be so often the case in Daei’s career however, things were much more positive.
Targeting the 1998 World Cup, Iran progressed, fuelled by nine goals from Daei, to a qualification play-off against Australia. Things looked less than promising when Team Melli could only achieve a 1-1 draw in front of an estimated 126,000 crowd in the home leg in Tehran, but an amazing fight back from two goals down, saw the ‘Down Under’ return game swing the way of Iran, and they qualified on away goals. Although the tournament itself was, on the whole, a disappointment, with Iran not progressing from the group stage, a 2-1 victory over the USA, assured the squad hero status back home.
Despite an arguably disappointing domestic league season, another club was seduced by Daei’s international pedigree, and Bayern Munich took him to Germany’s top club. In his one term with the Bavarians, he would secure a Bundesliga winner’s medal, and suffer the frustration of sitting on the bench when Manchester United ripped the Champions League trophy from Bayern’s hands in the last few minutes of the final at the Camp Nou. In all competitions, he would score a mere half-dozen goals in 31 games for Bayern, but in the course of their European campaign, became the first Iranian to play in the Champions League competition and was named as Asian Player of the Year for the first and only time in his career.
His goals return was clearly insufficient, however, and Bayern moved him on to Hertha Berlin. Maintaining the theme of his career, domestically it remained underwhelming. Six goals in more than 60 league games for Die Alte Dame isn’t the way to impress a lady, but balancing that against the same number of goals in just 19 European games showed how Daei’s game was apparently more suited to football’s more elevated stage.
There was little chance of a prolonged stay in Germany, and with no apparent interest from clubs in Europe, Daei returned to Asia, joining UAE club, Al-Shabab, scoring 11 goals in 23 league outings, before moving back to his native Iran to see out his career.
In contrast to his stalling club career in Germany though, things were progressing apace on the international stage, as Daei continued to plunder goals for Team Melli. In 2000, he netted 20 times in just 19 internationals. A prolific return by any standards, and with that sort of scoring rate, inevitably records began to tumble. A goal against Lebanon in 2003 saw him pass the mark set by Puskas as he became the world’s most prolific international striker of all time. It was a record he would continue to stretch.
Whilst back in Iran the following year, he finally breached the century of international goals during a World Cup qualifying match against Laos. Entering the game on 98 goals, he plundered a further four strikes to burst through the century barrier. They were part of 17 goals scored in just 16 outings for Iran in that year.
Although 2004 was not his highest goal return – he’d notched 20 in 2000 and 22 in 1996 – it marked a return to prolific goalscoring after just netting the same number in the previous three years added together. To be fair though, even scoring 17 times in international football across three seasons is worthy of merit for the more mortal of forwards. It also marked, the last of his truly prolific goalscoring years.
In the following years, he would score four and then two goals for Iran. His swansong came at the 2006 World Cup, back in Germany. Now 36 years old, his most potent days were clearly behind him, but not taking a striker of such renown to the tournament would surely have been borderline unthinkable. It seemed however that the footballing gods had decided that sufficient grace had been granted to Ali Daei, and in a largely forgettable tournament for Iran, he would remain scoreless, with the team exiting at the group stages. The inevitable retirement announcement would follow shortly afterwards.
Some may argue that Ali Daei was almost the definition of a ‘flat track bully’ in his goalscoring exploits for Iran, feasting on a glut of goals against the world’s lesser teams. The four-goal haul against Laos could be cited as an example, and that when tested on the highest levels – in Germany, or at the World Cup – he came up short. Conversely, however, it must be remembered that if Asian football is considered by arguments seeking to diminish his achievements, as weak, it’s the football he was a part of as well.
This isn’t a case of a Brazilian superstar parachuting into a football somewhat less developed than he is used to. The goals are still the same size and shape and the ball is still round. The unanswerable fact is that, on the international stage, Ali Daei was able to put the latter into the former more times than anyone else, and for that at least, this international goalscorer extraordinaire deserves nothing but high regard and respect.