Brighton's Alireza Jahanbakhsh out to prove he's more Van Nistelrooy than Kezman in Premier League
There is a longstanding summer tradition of the big stars from the Dutch top tier heading to the English Premier League. The list of those who have shone -- such as Arjen Robben and Ruud van Nistlerooy -- is mirrored by the misses -- Mateja Kezman, Afonso Alves and Jon Dahl Tomasson. It remains to be seen on what side of that divide Alireza Jahanbakhsh falls as he becomes Brighton and Hove Albion's record signing, but the Iranian winger has shone every time he has stepped up to the next level.
There is more pressure on his shoulders than simply showing that there is still plenty of talent in the Eredivisie, where the winger finished as the leading scorer last season. A bigger responsibility is to show the world there is just as much talent in Iran and to show young Iranians that if he can go from playing on the streets of the country's northwest to unfashionable club Damash Gilan and end up in the world's richest and most popular league by the age of 24, then they can too.
Asia's No. 1 football nation, in terms of FIFA rankings at least, has yet to really produce a player to really star in England's top tier. Ashkan Dejagah and Andranik Teymourian are fondly remembered at Fulham and Bolton, respectively, while national legend Karim Bagheri is best remembered in England as being the answer to a quiz question for his single appearance for Charlton Athletic. None of them arrived in the Premier League with the kind of European experience and reputation that Jahanbakhsh has, however.
It took courage and ambition to leave Iran as a teenager to join NEC in the Netherlands' second tier in 2013. He starred during his two years, and was named the division's player of the year in 2015, before moving to the top flight with AZ Alkmaar. There he went from strength to strength. By the end of the 2016-17 season he was being named as the best winger in the league. The following year he could lay claim to being the best player full stop. Scoring 21 goals last season was impressive enough, but his 12 assists were joint best as well. It was no surprise there was plenty of interest in the player, with Leicester City trying to hijack the deal at the last minute. Indeed, it was more of an eyebrow-raiser that there weren't more suitors.
Perhaps had the 2018 World Cup gone a little better, things might have been different. Jahanbakhsh appeared in all three of Iran's games, but in a tough group with Morocco, Spain and Portugal and with a coach focused on keeping things tight at the back, he got little chance to shine and less time on the ball.
That will be forgotten with his first goal for Brighton. There is no question the goals will come from the right-winger who offers versatility in attack and started out as a full-back, it's more about how many he scores and creates. His speed, his running and ability to find space in and around the box means there will always be chances. The question is how he adapts to the lack of space and time that he will have, or not have, in England compared to the Eredivisie. A technique that still needs some work is found out less often in the slower confines of Holland. In the Premier League, he needs to improve that part of his game. If he can, then Brighton will have a major bargain on their hands.
The signs from his time with AZ are good. It is not that common for a team to lose its best player but everyone left behind smiles and wishes him well. That is nothing however compared to the response back home with excitement at the prospect of seeing whether he can reproduce his Dutch form on a bigger stage and pride at the reported €20 million transfer fee.
It would have been considerably less three years ago when Brighton were interested and he actually visited the club before deciding to join AZ. "I [decided I] would rather stay in the Netherlands for two or three more years, to develop myself with more experience to be ready for this competition and this amazing club," Jahanbakhsh said after signing the deal that makes him the most expensive signing in the club's history. "I was thinking if I got the opportunity again, I would take it. I always had a good feeling about this club."
The feeling may well soon be mutual, and whatever happens, Brighton are going to have their every move followed by millions of fans in Tehran and elsewhere in the country. If he can give them plenty to cheer about, he not only encourages compatriots and colleagues back home, he will shine a spotlight on Iran for other clubs in big leagues to start looking around.
This is a big deal not only for Brighton but for the Netherlands and, especially, for Iran.