Mehdi Mahdavikia of Hamburg and Iran (©empics)
UEFA - At the age of 16, Mehdi Mahdavikia was a promising youngster who happily underwent a strict daily training regime at Iranian club Pirouzi Tehran. A decade on, he has just signed a deal with Hamburger SV that makes the 2003 Asian Player of the Year one of the Bundesliga's best-paid stars.
Mahdavikia moved to Europe in 1998 to join VfL Bochum 1848, but he looks back proudly on the footballing education of his youth. "When I was 16, my youth coach at Pirouzi demanded that I take 60 crosses from the right wing every day," he said. "I am very grateful to him now."
World Cup chance
"Conditions back home are different to what German people are used to," he continued. "Professional football only started in Iran a couple of years ago, and unlike in Germany the kids don't have the opportunity to join clubs at a very early age." Despite this, Mahdavikia did enough to become Asian Youth Player of the Year in 1997, and was part of the Iran squad at the 1998 FIFA World Cup that claimed a famous 2-1 win against the United States. He now has 72 caps.
His performances earned the switch to Bochum. "I felt all alone in the beginning and had many problems adapting to a different culture as it was my first time abroad, but I learned a lot during those days," Mahdavikia said. Bochum were relegated in his first season, but he joined Hamburg and in 2000/01 entered the UEFA Champions League.
Hamburg might have been eliminated, but their 3-1 victory at Juventus FC remains a highlight. However, disappointments followed as Iran lost a World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland, and in 2002 Mahdavikia was plagued by a mysterious back pain. After months of injections and examinations it was discovered that he had seriously damaged his intervertebral disk.
"This was a very bad time for me," he said. "I stayed at home and had to lie on my back all the time, but the pain hardly stopped. I was afraid my career was over." But thanks to the skills of an Iranian surgeon, and Mahdavikia's hard work, he was able to return in autumn 2002 to help Hamburg rise from the foot of the table to a UEFA Cup slot.
Former Hamburg coach Kurt Jara said: "Mehdi is an extraordinary professional. You don't find many players on the right wing who run that fast and cross the ball so well. I think that Mehdi is on the same level as [David] Beckham."
In October 2003, he laid on two goals on his return to international football as Iran lifted the AFC/OFC Challenge Cup against New Zealand. Clubs in England, Italy and Spain were taking an interest in a player whose contract expired in summer 2004.
However, he has opted to stay at Hamburg, not least because his wife and daughter enjoy life in a city with a 40,000-strong Iranian community. "My family love living in Hamburg and have integrated well and found plenty of friends here," he said.
So much so that he is already dreaming of playing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. "It would be a dream come true to play here in Hamburg's stadium in 2006, with my compatriots in the stands." Given his enormous popularity with the Hamburg fans, a fair few Germans would lend their support too.