Schalke v Manchester United

Karimi could rise to the top

April 26, 2011
By John Duerden
(Archive)

Manchester United may not be the most popular European team in every Asian nation but overall, the Red Devils are number one. Schalke, their opponents in the UEFA Champions League semi-final, haven't really registered on the world's biggest continent at all - until now. South Korea will remain red when the first leg kicks off on Tuesday but the same can't be said of neighbours near and far. Japan have Atusto Uchida to cheer in the Schalke ranks, millions of Chinese will be hoping that Hao Junmin plays a part, while over in Iran, the appearance of Ali Karimi would send a football-mad nation to bed happy.

Ali Karimi (r) came on to replace Raul (l) for his Schalke debut
GettyImagesAli Karimi (r) came on to replace Raul (l) against Inter Milan for his Schalke debut

If Alex Ferguson had watched the 2004 Asian Cup quarter-final between South Korea and Iran then he may have signed a different, or perhaps an additional, star from the east. Park Ji-Sung was overshadowed on that steamy Saturday evening in Jinan. The gritty Chinese city was lit up by Karimi, who scored a fantastic hat-trick in a 4-3 win for the Persians that remains more important in the Iranian's career than his Korean counterpart's. If 'Asia's Maradona' takes the pitch either in Gelsenkirchen on Tuesday or at Old Trafford a week later, he may look at Park and wonder what might have been.

These days the Manchester United man is accustomed to high-tension knockout games in major international competitions. His three Premier League medals are surely soon to become four and he will be disappointed not to play the full 90 minutes in his fourth set of Champions League semi-finals. Karimi will be delighted just to get on the pitch; Park has made the most of his talent while the Iranian would struggle to say the same with conviction. Still, it has been quite a career, the archetypal roller-coaster and one that could finish on what would be the ultimate high.

It is not beyond the realms of possibility. Karimi debuted for the Germans in the first leg of their quarter-final win against Inter. If seeing the star in a white shirt for the first time was a surprise for his fans at home, then they would never have imagined him replacing Raul and saying a few words of appreciation to the Spanish legend. Karimi, now 32, had been regarded as almost finished in Iranian football just a few months previously.

He showed in 2004 that he has the skills but much has happened since, both on and off the pitch. If there were fireworks the first time he faced Park on the park, something similar happened the last time the two locked horns as well. In June 2009, Iran were leading 1-0 at Seoul World Cup Stadium when, with nine minutes remaining, Park brought 65,000 fans to their feet with a fine solo effort. Thousands of miles away in Tehran, his strike had the opposite effect: it was a goal that ended Iranian hopes of qualifying for South Africa.

But even in such a football-crazy nation, there was more at play than a place at the World Cup. Bodies were in Seoul but minds were back in Tehran, a city gripped by large-scale riots and protests that were taking place in support of Hossein Mousavi after disputed presidential election results. Green was the colour of the challenger to president Ahmadinejad and in Korea, Karimi was one of six who sported green wristbands. The game was broadcast live in Iran and made headlines around the world.

Despite that protest, Karimi actually had more cause than most to keep on good terms with the country's football-loving leader. After all, back in 2008 Ahmadinejad told the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) to reinstate Karimi to the national team after the player had publicly complained that the governing body's lack of professionalism was taking the game backwards. The deputy head of the IFF, Mahdi Taj said: "President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Seyyed Hassan Khomeini - the grandson of the founder of Islamic Revolution Imam Khomeini - have called for the suspension on Ali Karimi to be lifted."

It would have been interesting to see Karimi play under Ali Daei, the national team head coach at the time. Daei is the only Iranian to play more times for the country and the pair were team-mates at the 2006 World Cup, a hugely disappointing one for Iran with just a draw against Angola to show for years of hard work. Many fans felt that Daei, then 37, had hung around too long. Maybe Karimi thought the same and whether he did or not, reports of a divided dressing room with the two leading opposite camps were soon spreading from Germany.

So if Karimi needs first-hand testimony of Manchester United's power of recovery, he is not likely to get it from his former team-mate. It is a shame as Daei was on the Bayern Munich bench on that fateful night in Barcelona in 1999 when the English team scored twice in injury time. Who knows? Perhaps if it had been the Bavarians chasing the game, maybe Daei would have been introduced to stick out a leg and write his name into European football history.

Ali Karimi: The deep-lying forward has played 112 times for Iran
APAli Karimi: The deep-lying forward has played 112 times for Iran

Karimi joined Bayern too, in 2005, and actually played and scored in the Champions League. Just as he was starting to settle in the side, an ankle injury threw a spanner in the works. His return to fitness didn't mean a return to the starting XI and in 2007 he was back home - first with Persepolis and then with Steel Azin.

It was there that he made the headlines again. In August 2010, he was fired from the club for drinking water as he trained during Ramadan. "The club has been forced to sack one of its players, Ali Karimi, for being disobedient and not fasting during Ramadan," a statement on the club's homepage said. "(Ali Karimi) insulted officials of the (Iranian) football federation and the Tehran team's supervisor who confronted him on the issue."

It was harsh amid the general tolerance for drinking during training as long as it was discreet and few believed that Karimi's earlier remarks criticising the big-spending club for bringing in big-name players but doing little to bring a professional environment had not played a part.

Karimi may have been reinstated but was soon on his way to pastures new. After all that had happened, a move away from Iran was not a surprise - maybe a gentle pre-retirement year or two in the UAE or Qatar was the most likely option - but nobody would have predicted that his next port of call would be a team like Schalke in a league like the Bundesliga.

Now the biggest club game in world football is in sight. There is still some way to go but if Karimi makes it to London on May 28 instead of Park, even fans in South Korea may decide to cheer him on. And if he helps Schalke to lift the cup, it could inspire the people of Tehran to take to the street once more, but this time to celebrate one of the best, and most controversial, Asian players of the past decade.