Saturday, February 27, 2010

Karimi returns to international fold

Can there be a more frustrating player in all of Asian football than Ali Karimi?

Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi has taken the decision to recall the former Asian Player of the Year for the country's Asian Cup qualifier against Thailand next week. For the Iranians, the game means little as they have already qualified but for the Thais it is crucial as they embark on a three-way battle with Singapore and Jordan for second place in their group and a slot at the finals in Qatar next year.

No doubt Thailand head coach Bryan Robson and his assistant Steve Darby will be less than pleased that Ghotbi has chosen to recall a player of such raw talent, a man who can rip teams apart on his own with his mesmerizing dribbling skills and powerful running. Karimi could singlehandedly destroy Thailand's Asian Cup qualification hopes.

The call-up is the beginning of a return to the national team for Karimi, who has - by all accounts - been playing well in the Iran Pro League since signing for Steel Azin, where he was lured by the club's deep pockets along with a number of other current and former national team players such as Mehdi Mahdavikia.

Karimi retired from international football after Iran missed out on a place at the 2010 World Cup finals but Ghotbi has now offered him the chance to pull on the Team Melli shirt once again, which he has accepted ( and his return will certainly strengthen the Iranian squad as the country seeks to win the Asian Cup for the first time since 1976.

The 31-year-old is far from conventional and that is one of the characteristics that makes him so fascinating and frustrating. It's not just the fact that he looks to beat another player rather than passing the ball to a team mate, it has been his body swerving career choices that have left many scratching their heads.

When there was an offer on the table to go to Atletico Madrid, he chose - puzzlingly - to move to the UAE to play for Al Ahli. Money, no doubt, talked very loudly on that, as did Dubai's proximity to Iran and its large Persian expatriate population. When he did move to Europe, four years later, he went to Bayern Munich, but only stayed for two seasons before the Bavarians - frustrated at his inability to fully realise his potential - cut him loose. Since then he has played throughout the Middle East, even though his phenomenal talents deserve a much grander stage.

That, though, won't be at the World Cup in June and, now that he's in his 30s, he's unlikely to return to European football. So, perhaps he can lead Iran to their first Asian Cup success in 35 years. His ability deserves to reap such success for a nation that is probably the most obsessed with the sport in Asia, even if the willful Karimi hasn't always been the best guardian of his unquestionably prodigious talent.

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