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From out of nowhere
He's the young man who has taken Asian football by storm over the last six months with his dazzling displays for Iran. Now Mehdi Mahdavikia is looking for success in the Asian Club Championship. Michael Church talks to the Piruzi striker.
Before September 13 last year the name of Mehdi Mahdavikia was little known outside of the insular world of Iranian football.
The 20-year-old Piruzi striker was nothing more than one of iran's many promising young players, one of a group that was seen as the future of Persian football, a group that, it was hoped, would one day take the former Asian giants back to the top of the continent's game.
Then on a cool autumn day in Dalian, China, Mahdavikia's life was to change and his name thrust into the limelight. Two goals in iran's come-from-behind 4-2 win over China did the trick - winning the game for his country and helping Iran down the road towards the World Cup in France this year.
But it wasn't just the fact that the Tehran lad hit thosem two all-important goals, it was the manner in which the ball hit the back of the net. Mahdavikia's two goals were two of the finest strikes seen in recent times in Asian football. That they came in the same match and from the same player made Mehdi an overnight star.
The first was a goal of deft dribbling and precise placement as the youngster left three Chinese defenders in his wake before placing the ball out of Ou Chuliang's reach in the top right corner. The second, in contrast, came like an unstoppable bullet from the blue, the ball rocketing off Mahdavikia's right foot into the top corner of Ou's goal.
Seven months on and Mahdavikia is in Tripoli, Lebanon with his club Piruzi for the western quarter-finals of the Asian Club Championship. Having just scored the winning goals in each of the opening two games - against Al Hilal and Al Ansar - Mahdavikia has proven his worth again, assuring the Iranian side of a place in the semi-finals for the second year running.
He sits, head bowed, thinking carefully of his answers before replying in a soft, quiet voice. His manner is disarming and misleading as this young colossus of a player sheepishly responds in a way that contrasts with his bullish, thrusting, tigerish on-field persona.
Mahdavikia's development of that persona has not gone unnoticed. Germany's European Champions' League winners Borussia Dortmund are hot on the trail of the stocky, powerful forward while the coaches of Yugoslavia, Germany and the USA, Iran's group opponents in this summer's World Cup, are also paying careful attention.
The road to fame for Mahdavikia has been a short one, making his debut for the national team just over a year ago when he was brought into the side that kicked-off the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates with a 2-1 loss to fierce rivals Iraq. But it was an experience Mahdavikia was to learn from.
He says: "In the UAE it was the first time I had played with the national team and we did very well. I think we did so well because we all worked well together, we helped each other a lot. I quickly learned that if you help each other in football on and off the pitch then you can do well and be a good team."
Iran finished third in the competition, the country's best finish in the tournament since 1980, and the success served only to spur the forward into doing even better, encouraging him into training harder in Tehran.
Mahdavikia was soon to taste the fruits of his labours with his introduction into the starting line-up for the World Cup qualifying games, filling in the unaccustomed role of right back after Naeim Sadavi's drug related suspension earlier in the year.
Sadavi's loss was Mahdavikia's gain and the youngster took full advantage. Then came those goals.
"When I was very young every time I went training I would work on my dribbling and going forward so the first goal was not a surprise," says the 20-year-old of his exploits in Dalian, "but the second one was because I've never scored a goal like that before. That was special."
The goals kick-started a run of success for Iran as the Persians looked almost certain to be headed for France. Then disaster struck as Iran slipped down Group A and looked capable of missing out on the World Cup altogether.
"Before we played against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh we had been playing well and our mentality was very good. If we had drawn with Saudi we would have been okay but we lost after a goal in the last minute. After that we struggled against Kuwait and Qatar and we had lost confidence."
As Mahdavikia says, lran's results went from bad to worse. After the last minute defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia came a home draw with Kuwait and a 2-0 loss to Qatar. Saudi Arabia went on to top the group leaving Iran facing a play-off with Japan - and without coach Mayeli Kohan, who the federation sacked.
"Mayell Kohan was a very good coach and he gave a lot of young players a chance to play, especially myself," says Mahdavikia. -After he left I was disappointed but it's none of my business why he left, that's the federation's decision.
"We had so many problems against Japan. They changed the coach (Vaidir Vierra replaced Kohan) and two or three players and also they changed the playing system. But despite these problems I thought we played well against the Japanese and were very unlucky.'
Japan won 3-2 in golden-goal extra-time leaving Iran to slug it out with Australia for the final place in the World Cup draw. Few who were in Melbourne for the second leg - after the teams had drawn 1-1 in Tehran will ever forget iran's win on away goals as Karir-n Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi did the business for the Persians.
A wry smile spreads across Mahdavikia's face as he remembers that night in southern Australia, the night when the team became heroes to a nation of football fans that have waited 20 years to see their country represented at football's top table.
"Australia are a strong team," he says, "but we were better in Tehran and we missed a lot of chances. They missed a lot of chances in Melbourne, they played very well but we took the chances when they came. I still can't put how I felt that night into words."
Now the World Cup looms and the Iranians are under no illusions just how big a task they have ahead of them. In Germany and Yugoslavia they face two of Europe's top sides while against the Americans they wil I take part in a game the repercussions of which go far further than football.
'Our job at the World Cup is very hard because our group is very strong. We have Germany and Yugoslavia and we must work very hard but fortunately we now have a very good coach (Croatian Tomislav lvic) and he can help US.
The game against the Americans is very important for us and for our people especially. We will try our best to win this because of its importance. I don't think there's a lot of pressure but they would like us to win."
The match against Germany has special significance for the Iranians with three of the nation's top players - Asian Player of the Year Khodadad Azizi, Karim Bagheri and Ali Daei - now featuring in the Bundesliga. And Mahdavikia could become a fourth if Dortmund's interest in him develops into something more concrete.
"The three guys play very near to the rest of the Germany team and with all of the players playing in the Bundesliga we will know them well. We will have good experience of them and that can help us a lot.
"I don't think there is one game that is more important than another but I think I will have to try to play well against Germany because I've had an offer to go there and maybe I will go there after the World Cup. Borussia Dortmund have seen many of my games but if I play well against Germany then my chances of moving are even better.'
The Germans have been keen on Mahdavikia for several months, attempting to entice him to Dortmund several times. But the young striker has remained in Tehran with his nine brothers and three sisters.
"Dortmund have sent some invitation cards to my club for me but they haven't talked to me yet. The talk hasn't been serious so far because I have so many things to think about before I think about leaving Iran. We have the Asian Club Championship and the World Cup first but after that I will decide."
No doubt the Germans wil I be hanging on his every quietly-spoken word.
DUBAI, May 14 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal is expected to make a two-day official visit to Iran in the last week of May, Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia said on Thursday.
``According to our knowledge, His Royal Highness Prince Saud al-Faisal...will make an official visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran at the head of a high-level delegation in the last week of May,'' Ambassador Mohammad Reza Nouri told Reuters.
He would not give specific dates for the trip, but Saudi newspapers said the foreign minister would be in Iran on May 26 and 27.
Speaking by telephone from Riyadh, Nouri said Prince Saud was expected to meet Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and other senior officials. The two countries were expected to sign a cooperation accord covering economic, scientific, cultural and other matters.
The ambassador said Prince Saud was making the trip on the invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who travelled to the kingdom in March. Kharrazi's trip followed on the heels of a visit to Saudi Arabia by former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Prince Saud had said during Kharrazi's visit that closer relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were important to underpin regional security.
The bilateral visits are the latest sign of closer links between the two regional powers.
Ties between the two states, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries' two biggest oil producers, have been tense since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. But they have warmed since the election last year of Khatami, who is considered a moderate.
TEHRAN, May 14 (Reuters) - Iran's copper output is set to rise to 120,000 tonnes in the current Iranian year to March 20, 1999 and production would double in the next three years, the head of Iran's state copper company, told the daily Iran News.
Iran's copper output rose five percent to 105,000 tonnes in the last Iranian year.
Abdolreza Hashemzaei, managing director of the National Copper Industries of Iran (NCII), said in remarks published on Thursday that Iran welcomed ``buy-back'' foreign investment in the country's copper industries.
Under buy-back terms, foreign investors recoup their capital and earn returns by receiving some of the project's output.
NCII would undertake four major development projects -- the thickening unit of Sarcheshmeh copper complex, its smelting unit, and the Mayduk and Sungun mines, Hashemzaei said.
``About $400 million and 1,400 billion rials ($467 million) are needed to start these projects,'' Iran News quoted him as saying. The capital would come from foreign exchange earned from exports, NCII's internal sources or bank facilities.
Hashemzaei said that in implementing the projects and other plans NCII was ready to cooperate with foreign companies, referring to cooperations with Australian and Swedish companies and talks with other foreign firms, which he did not name.
Australia's Broken Hill Pty (BHP.AX) (BHP) and Swedish mining equipment group Svedala (SVDA.ST) have contracts with Iran's copper industry.
Hashemzaei added the NCII would privatise some of its smaller units to raise funds.
Iranian has said it was seeking $1.1 billion in foreign financing to boost copper and steel output.
Minerals and metals export earnings rose almost 50 percent to $374 million in the last Iranian year.
Iran, the world's third largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia and Norway, is looking to boost non-oil exports to reduce reliance on the mercurial international oil market.
($1-3,000 rials at the official rate of exchange)
TEHRAN, May 14 (Reuters) - These are some of the leading
stories in Iranian newspapers on Thursday. Reuters has not verified these stories and does not vouch for their accuracy.
JOMHURI ESLAMI - Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that the education of children and young adults requires serious attention. ``The Iranian nation is concerned about the onslaught of the corrupt Western culture on its young generation,'' he said.
- Iran expects Russia to speed up work to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation said in Moscow on Tuesday.
- The visiting director of the Middle East Department in the German Foreign Ministry expressed regret over the harm inflicted on Tehran-Bonn relations, saying that Germany has never accused the Iranian government of terrorism.
- Tajik First Deputy Prime Minister and Iranian Foreign Minister on Wednesday held talks on the inter-Tajik peace process and ways to develop relations between the two countries.
- Managing director of National Copper Industries of Iran tells paper that Iran welcomes buy-back foreign investment made in the country's copper industries.
- Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani told a student group on Wednesday: ``Today the government is in need of defusing tension... Supporting Mr Khatami is supporting the system.''
- Several Chinese-made locomotives for Tehran underground railway sank in the sea en route between China and Iran in an accident between two ships.
- The death toll of floods in the northwestern province of Azerbaijan on Tuesday rose to 11 on Wednesday with the discovery of another body. About 30 people were injured and many houses were destroyed in the flood-stricken village of Tasouj.
TEHRAN, May 14 (Reuters) - Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday blasted backers of a dissident senior cleric over their plan to hold a demonstration in the central city of Isfahan, Iran's official news agency IRNA said.
It said Khamenei ``called on the Isfahani people to neutralise the attempts by deceived people to spoil the Friday prayers ceremony tomorrow.''
Newspapers said backers of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who is under house arrest, had called on people in Isfahan to voice support for the dissident cleric during the prayers.
Khamenei said the rally was part of a conspiracy ``by the U.S. arrogant system and their Zionist elements'' and urged people to attend the prayers but not to allow the plot to take place.
``I know they will not allow (it),'' IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying in a message broadcast on local radio and television.
Isfahan province, and particularly Montazeri's hometown of Najafabad, has been a hotbed of protests since the dissident was placed under house arrest and prevented from teaching after he questioned the authority of Khamenei in a speech in November.
Montazeri's rare public challenge to Khamenei's paramount power prompted violent demonstrations by hardliners in which the dissident's house and offices were attacked.
The daily Jameah said Montazeri's backers had urged people to chant slogans at the Friday prayers demanding freedom of speech and thought, and supporting the right of Montazeri and other religious scholars to express their views.
The newspaper said the dissidents urged their supporters to avoid violence and cooperate with police during the protest.
Montazeri's treatment by the authorities has sparked repeated strikes by shopkeepers in Najafabad in recent months.
Montazeri, 75, has been Iran's most prominent dissident since the country's late spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dismissed him as his designated successor shortly before his death in 1989. Montazeri had criticised government policies including the treatment of political prisoners.
Isfahan has also been the scene of clashes between hardline Islamists and supporters of Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri, a moderate cleric who leads the city's Friday's prayers.
Taheri, an ally of President Mohammad Khatami, has repeatedly criticised hardline groups for taking the law into their own hands and attacking the offices of moderate newspapers and cinemas screening a film they deemed immoral.
Khatami, a relative moderate who has advocated granting greater liberties, has not spoken out about Montazeri's case but some pro-Khatami newspapers have criticised the measures against the dissident.
Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.