The 'Iranian Messi' who wants to hug Arsene Wenger
If Arsenal do indeed intend to sign Sardar Azmoun, as widely reported recently, they should expect some very unorthodox demands from his parents. The 19-year-old striker is strangely dubbed the "Iranian Messi" by some, but his role model is Neymar. He strives to emulate the Brazilian -- and not in the sense you would expect. Azmoun’s goal is different; he aspires to become a father at a young age, just like the Selecao star.
“I noticed that all the big stars got married early, so I am planning to marry in the near future,” he said in a recent interview in Iran. Sardar’s parents don’t share such hopes and when their son signed his first professional contract with Rubin Kazan in the beginning of 2013, they specifically demanded that he should never stay at home alone. This is written in his contract, and when the parents -- who moved to Russia with their son -- have to visit Iran, Sardar lives at the club’s training facilities.
Sardar’s career has been unusual so far. As a child, he represented Iran at Under-12 level but then left football and started playing volleyball. That is hardly surprising as his father Khalil was a very prominent volleyball star (twice named Asian Player of the Year), his mother is a volleyball coach and his uncle played the game as well.
Sardar showed huge potential at 14 but before joining the youth national team he was suddenly offered a chance to return to football. He expected his parents to oppose the move but that wasn’t the case -- they supported their son’s choice wholeheartedly. Azmoun still misses playing volleyball and enjoys taking part in some games at amateur level, just for fun.
Born in Golestan Province, where most of the population are Turkmens like himself, Azmoun moved to the big city of Isfahan when he was 16. There, he joined Sepahan, got a call from the Under-19 national team and made his first big headlines in January 2012 at the Commonwealth of Independent States Cup in St Petersburg.
As the name suggests, that tournament is played between the former members of the Soviet Union. Some of them, however, refused to take part and Iran were invited to make up the numbers. Azmoun was crowned the tournament’s top scorer with seven goals in six games and that’s when Rubin decided they wanted him in their ranks.
“Our chief scout, Andrey Fyodorov, followed him even before the CIS Cup. We invited him and I was pleasantly surprised that he speaks Turkmen language,” said Kurban Berdyev, the legendary Rubin coach, himself a Turkmen.
Sardar's father Khalil didn’t like the way Sepahan treated his son as he didn’t get any opportunities in the first team. He also wasn’t too fond of the Iranian league as a whole, calling it “too dirty.” Thus, a move abroad looked a logical option for him. Inter Milan were also interested in signing the young prodigy but Sardar preferred learning from Berdyev. A deal was soon agreed and the Azmoun family moved to the capital of Tatarstan.
Although the coach was very positive about him from the beginning, the youngster had to wait six months before he was given a chance to prove himself. He took it with both hands, scoring against Molde in the Europa League qualifiers. The first league match came in October against Anzhi Makhachkala and it was even better for him, with Azmoun entering the field towards the end and immediately scoring with a classy one-touch finish. It has been difficult to ignore him ever since.
Berdyev was sensationally fired in December after more than 12 years at the club he had built from scratch but Azmoun, who respected him immensely, might have profit from the change. He can’t speak Turkmen with new coach Rinat Bilyaletdinov but Rubin now play with two strikers instead of one. With star Venezuelan forward Salomon Rondon sold to Zenit in January, Azmoun starts with new signing Marko Devic up front and his confidence is growing on a weekly basis.
While Neymar is his idol off the pitch, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is his role model on it. “I have always admired Zlatan because his technical skills are amazing for such a big man,” he says.
Comparisons with the great Swede would be extremely premature but some subtle similarities can already be noticed. Azmoun has a great first touch, his movement off the ball is intelligent and he is capable of stunning his opponents. One of the best examples of such a move occurred in the build-up to Dmitri Torbinski’s goal against Volga last month -- notice the brilliant backheel pass by Azmoun that Zlatan himself would have admired.
Recent weeks have been the most productive in the Iranian’s career so far. He scored a fine goal against Rostov and then found the net at Zenit with a very calm first touch. Now that he's hearing about interest from some of the biggest clubs in the world, he can’t stop dreaming about a major upgrade in the summer.
“I have offers from Arsenal, Juventus and Milan. There was also an interest from Barcelona, but it is now irrelevant because of their transfer ban,” Azmoun told Iranian TV. “I would love to hug Arsene Wenger,” he was quoted in Iranian newspaper Varzeshi, which ran pictures of him wearing an Arsenal shirt. The name "Sardar" means "the one who wants to climb to the top," and it certainly fits the young striker.
Azmoun has a remarkable record for his country, having scored 19 goals in 17 games for the Under-21 national team. Carlos Queiroz called him to to the national team last October and he hopes to making the World Cup squad.
Nevertheless, he is yet to make his debut and local pundits consider his chances of going to Brazil quite low, with the Portuguese coach likely to pick more experienced players.
He might have to wait to play for Queiroz, but Azmoun is undoubtedly the best Iranian player in his age group. His transfer to Rubin went almost unnoticed in his country but recent success brought him widespread attention and fans all over Iran are expecting a big move in the summer. Sardar is still a raw talent but isn’t that exactly the type of player Wenger likes to nurture? If the Frenchman wants to hug Azmoun, he will likely be able to do just that sooner rather than later.