If its current impressive form continues, Iran's national soccer team should feature at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. For a number of the players it will be like playing at home after another season in the Bundesliga.
Hamburg's Mahdavikia (right) is one the Bundesliga's Iranian contingent
A strong campaign in Asian qualifying zone has so far seen Iran installed as favorites to make it to the World Cup in Germany in 2006 at the expense of experienced teams such as South Korea and Japan.
For some players within the unbeaten Iranian squad, the journey to the World Cup will not require much international travel. The current success of Iran can be traced to a number of players performing in the Bundesliga.
German influence in Iran is stronger than in any other Asian nation with striker Vahid Hashemian turning out for champions-elect Bayern Munich, Bochum's Moharram Navidkia, playmaker Fereydoon Zandi at Kaiserslautern and Hamburg SV's Mehdi Mahdavikia are all playing a part in the campaign to bring their country to their adopted land to battle for the ultimate soccer prize next year.
Iran coach Branko Ivankovic has praised the Bundesliga quartet and considers their contribution to be an integral part of the team's success at the midway point of the Asian Zone's third and final qualifying round. "I am quite pleased with the German-based players who have adapted very well to the team so far. The experience they have gained in Bundesliga is important in helping the team to win matches," the 51-year-old Croatian told FIFAworldcup.com.
Benched Hashemian lethal for Iran
Vahid 'The Helicopter' Hashemian, named as such due to his presence in aerial duels, is arguably one of the most successful Asian players in German soccer. The 28-year-old forward scored 16 goals last season at his former club Bochum as they recorded an impressive fifth-placed finish in the Bundesliga.
After a two million euro transfer to Bavarian giants Bayern, however, Hashemian has been restricted to substitute performances due to the impressive line-up of marksmen in the squad which includes Roy Makaay, Claudio Pizarro, José Paolo Guerrero and Roque Santa Cruz.
Even so, the lack of first team action has done nothing to dent his resolve or blunt his sharpness in front of goal when given the chance. Hashemian has scored four goals in the past six World Cup qualifiers, including a brace that handed Iran three precious points in the crucial 2-1 victory over Group A favorites Japan in March.
"Hashemian has developed into a great player after his spells with three German Bundesliga clubs. I am happy to see how quickly he fitted back into the team after his return," Ivankovic said, referring to the striker's three-year self-imposed exile from the national team.
Kaiserslautern's Zandi runs midfield show
Fereydoon Zandi is a welcome addition to the Iran team. The German-born midfielder, recently made a nationalized Iranian, has given his coach a pivotal center to a powerful midfield trio, with Hamburg's Mahdavikia and Javad Nekounam the other constituent parts.
"He has done a brilliant job with the team in the past three qualifiers to date," said Ivankovic. "What I would say is that he has a lot of potential to develop as you see he has been getting better and better game after game." Zandi's German style of play has added a combative edge to the team and his distribution and vision has helped Iran overcome some quality opposition with commanding performances from his central role.
Mahdavikia an icon-in-progress
Despite the playmaker mantle sitting comfortably on the shoulders of the Kaiserslautern man, the player that is becoming the most iconic and valuable is the emerging Mehdi Mahdavikia.
The 26-year-old Hamburg player was named Asian Player of the Year in 2003 and has gone from strength to strength in the national team, providing the attackers with the lifeblood of their game: the incisive ball and pinpoint crosses.
Young star Navidkia ready to break through
Bochum's Moharram Navidkia is also a player to watch. The former Olympic team captain and 2003 Footballer of the Year in Iran is still only 22 and has made some crucial appearances as a substitute in the national team's World Cup campaign to date.
With a solid front partnership of Hashemian and veteran Ali Daei, the leading scorer in the Asian qualifying tournament, Navidkia is struggling to break into the team on a regular basis but Ivankovic has high hopes for him and the rest of the youngsters pushing for inclusion.
"I am hoping that I can pass on to the next Iran coach a team based around this young generation and with five players under 23 in the current team, I believe we are heading in the right direction," Ivankovic concluded. If things continue as they are, that direction will be towards Germany and the 2006 World Cup.