Asia loses a legend as Karimi retires
Not many football players were mentioned by name in those diplomatic cables released to the world by WikiLeaks a few years ago but Ali Karimi was. Even Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad found the time to get involved in the career of the man they called 'The Wizard Of Tehran" who finally pocketed his wand and hung up his boots earlier this week. Having threatened to quit before, this time it is for real and Asian football has lost a little of its sparkle as a result.
His 117 caps for Iran, Bundesliga success with Bayern Munich and three separate spells with his beloved Persepolis in Tehran don't tell anything like the full story. Karimi is one, some say the best, of the most talented players Asia has ever produced.
Special barely begins to describe the quarterfinal of the 2004 Asian Cup against South Korea, almost exactly a decade ago. Jinan is one of the grittier Chinese cities but if you wanted beauty and magic, it was the place be on that sticky Saturday night as it hosted one of the greatest individual performances ever seen on the continent. Scoring a hat trick in a 4-3 win was always going to grab the headlines but there was something different about his performance that only a true great can claim. Iran coach Branko Ivankovic recalled later on how he realised early in the game that his star man was in special form; the instructions from the bench and the half-time team talk were basically to give it to Karimi.
Some of the Korean defenders were still shaking their heads an hour after it all finished and the tormentor is still talked about and respected in Seoul. Karimi was more than the difference between the two teams, he was the difference between witnessing an exciting game of knockout football in a major competition and something unforgettable. A few months later, he was named Asia's player of 2004.
It was almost a perfect year with the only frustration that he was still playing for Al Ahli in a UAE league where he lingered too long. It was like Park Ji-sung starring in the 2002 World Cup and deciding to stay at Kyoto Purple Sanga for another season or two instead of heading to PSV Eindhoven, the latter stages of the Champions League and then Manchester United. In typical Karimi fashion however, when the move came, it was a big one as he left Dubai for Bayern Munich, just weeks before Park was pictured holding the famous red shirt at Old Trafford in July 2005.
Karimi's first game against Bayer Leverkusen was watched by millions back home. It is hard to think of an Asian player who had managed such an impressive big league debut after a direct switch from east to west and the midfielder basked in the plaudits after helping his new club to a 5-2 win.
He continued to look solid over the next six months or so, before an ankle injury in arctic conditions against Hamburg in March 2006 ended his first campaign. He never really got going again, perhaps it was being injured a long way from home, perhaps it was the fall-out of that summer's World Cup, perhaps it was issues behind the scenes at FC Hollywood, but the injury as good as ended his time with Bayern. It was made official in May 2007 and, soon after, he returned to the Middle East and Qatar. Apart from the briefest of spells with Schalke, his European career was over.
There will be regret that the wider world outside Asia didn't get to see much of what he could do. 2006 should have been the time but the World Cup was a disaster for both player and country. Karimi was still not match fit after the Hamburg injury and was taken off on the hour of the opening game against Mexico. Shortly after, a 1-1 scoreline became a 3-1 defeat. Worse was to follow. He was one side of a major split in the dressing room opposite Ali Daei, a legend who was past his best by the time the tournament kicked off, and for Iranian football, the lack of unity off the pitch was more painful than results on it.
Controversy was never far away from Karimi -- given the tag "Asian Maradona," the nickname was accurate in more ways than one as he was not afraid to speak out about some of the issues in Iranian football, a trait that won him enemies as well as public affection. In 2008, the Iranian FA banned him from the national team after he publicly criticised the federation for incompetence. He was reinstated thanks to the efforts of President Ahmadinejad.
Perhaps, however, Iran's leader regretted the intervention the following year. In June 2009, Karimi headed to South Korea as part of a team needing to win to keep hopes of automatic qualification for the 2010 World Cup alive against a backdrop of major protests back home. The president had just won re-election but the opposition claimed their man, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as the real winner. The favoured colour of the challenger during the election was green, and six of the Team Melli XI took the pitch in Seoul sporting wristbands of the same colour. Whatever the official explanation soon given -- namely that the gesture was a religious one -- it was certainly interpreted by many as support for the opposition.
Many thought that was it for Karimi in terms of the international stage, especially when in 2010, his club Steel Azin banned him from playing after he was reportedly seen drinking water in a training session during Ramadan. The ban didn't last long though and he was soon back playing for his country but, in truth, his best years were behind him.
Even so, he managed to play a sizable part in Iran's successful qualification for the 2014 World Cup until the historic defeat to Lebanon midway through the final stage. Many fans campaigned for him to be summoned to Brazil but it was not to be, though coach Carlos Queiroz reserved some special words for the player when naming his final squad, who took the omission with the kind of grace he often showed on the playing field. In the end, it was hard to imagine the 35 year-old matching younger compatriots in their defensive discipline against Argentina but then, perhaps, it is easy to imagine him coming up with the goal that Iran deserved against the eventual runners-up too.
Karimi wasn't perfect. He upset plenty and his performances didn't always match his skill but that was part of his charm. He divided opinion as easily as he divided a defence with a deft backheel, but surely all can agree that Asian football is all the poorer for the retirement of a genuine legend.