OF ALL the footballing countries in the world, it is Iran who produced a striker who went on to score the most international goals of any player to date in the men’s game.
Striker Ali Daei, now 52 years old, scored a record 109 goals in 149 caps for Iran between 1993 and 2006 – that’s six more than Cristiano Ronaldo has scored in 173 caps for Portugal so far.
He was born in Ardabil and began his senior footballing career with Esteghlal Ardabil in 1987, playing for the club for 2 years before moving to Taxirani for a season and then onto Bank Tejaral for four seasons, netting 49 goals in just 75 matches for the minor league side.
With Premier Club Persepolis in 1994, Daei really began to make a name for himself in his homeland – in two seasons there, he netted 23 goals in 38 league appearances and earned a move to Qatari giants Al-Sadd, again impressing with 10 goals in 16 appearances during the 1996/97 season.
After that, he had caught the eye of European clubs – something which, for Asian players, is still quite rare to this day. Following that and his impressive performance for Iran in the Asian Cup in 1996 – Arminia Bielefeld, who had just joined the Bundesliga, took a chance on Daei and national team-mate Karim Bagheri.
After a decent spell with Bielefeld, scoring 7 goals in 25 Bundesliga outings, Bayern Munich came calling for Daei and it was there he would become the first-ever Asian player to play in the UEFA Champions League. It was at the Allianz though that, despite scoring 6 times for the club and winning the league and cup double in 1998/99, he would find himself unhappy for what was seemingly the first time in his senior career and he would soon move on to another German club – Hertha Berlin.
Daei scored his first and second goal in the UEFA Champions League on 21 September 1999 in a group stage 2-1 win against Chelsea. He also scored in a 1–1 draw against AC Milan at the San Siro, but much like with his time at Bayern, he was only a fringe player for Hertha.
In 2002, following a hit-and-miss spell in Germany, Daei returned to Asia – playing in the United Arab Emirates with Al Shabab before returning to Iran and Persepolis a year later.
Having scored a further 16 goals in 28 matches there, a 35-year-old Daei then moved to Sba Qom (Iran), continuing to ooze class and goals as he netted 23 times in two seasons. He moved to Saipa for the 2006/07 season and scored 10 times in 26 outings to give him a career total of 112 goals in 287 matches for his respective clubs.
It is for his country that he became a true hero however – even being affectionately known by now as ‘Mr Goal’ there.
He was first called up to the Iran National Team in June 1993 in an ECO Cup tournament in Tehran, where he would go on to make his international debut against Pakistan.
The striker helped Iran qualify for their first World Cup in 20 years, and although he didn’t score at France 98, he did assist Mehdi Mahdavikia’s goal in a famous victory over the USA.
Before Daei broke it, Ferenc Puskas’ record of 84 international goals had stood for 47 years – and Daei had to equal/beat that record on two separate occasions!
That’s because, the day he equalled the record by scoring a penalty in a game v North Korea – it was expunged after the game was suspended due to a North Korean player having been hit by a firecracker in the celebrations to the goal (you couldn’t make it up!). The North Koreans walked off the field, Iran were awarded a 3-0 win and Daei’s record-equalling goal was wiped off the stats pad.
BUT, it only took him until the very next game to level the record AGAIN and for good this time. Another penalty converted against Lebanon proved to be that 84th goal for his country and he the scored in the return leg against the same opponents in 2000 to break the world record for international goals scored. Daei then went on to add another 24 to his tally before he retired from international duty after Iran played at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
After his playing days came to an end, Daei went onto become a coach immediately, first as interim manager at Saipa and guiding them to the Iran Pro League title in 2006/07.
He then managed Iran and led them to the West Asian Football Federation Championship in 2008 before enjoying more success as manager of Persepolis and Naft Tehran (full list of honours below).
In his playing days for his country, Daei was simply the best. A tall and powerful forward who was great in the air and almost “too good” for his Asian opponents back in the day.
A brilliant player who deserves recognition for his work as a player and as a manager by now also.
ALI DAEI HONOURS
- Persepolis – Iranian Football League (95/96)
- Bayern Munich – Bundesliga (98/99), DFB Ligapokal (98/99)
- Iran – Asian Games Gold Medal (1998), AFC Cup (2003), WAFF Chanpionship (2004)
- Iran U23 – Asian Games Gold Medal (2002)
- Saba Qom – Hafzi Cup (04/05), Super Cup (2005)
- Saipa – Iran Pro League (06/07)
- Saipa – Iran Pro League (06/07)
- Iran – WAFF Championship (2008)
- Persepolis – Hafzi Cup (09/10), (10/11)
- Naft Tehran – Hafzi Cup (16/17)
- AFC Asian Footballer of the Year (1999)
- IFFHS World’s Top Goalscorer (45 goals, year 2000)
- IFFHS World’s Top International Goal Scorer of all Time (109 goals)
- Order of Courage (2005)
- Asian Football Hall of Fane (2014)