AFC - When Islamic Republic of Iran giants Esteghlal step onto the field into the cauldron of noise that is the cavernous Azadi Stadium to face Emirati side Al Ain in the first leg of their AFC Champions League Round of 16 tie on Monday, striker Kaveh Rezaei knows that nothing less than giving his all will be sufficient for the club’s home fans who are comfortably among Asia’s most fervent.
The 25-year-old is in his second AFC Champions League campaign after he reached the last 16 with Isfahan club Zobahan, although his four goals in six games this time round is a marked improvement on last year’s tally when he netted just the once.
But then the pressure and expectations from the legions of Esteghlal fans, a side that is considered by many to be among the biggest clubs in Asia, is a different experience entirely.
Rezaei: Esteghlal is one of the giants of Asia
“Esteghlal are a great team, one of the true giants in Iran and Asia,” says Rezaei, who helped the team finish runners-up in the Iran Pro League this season.
“At the same time there is a lot of pressure on the shoulders of the players. We have to play at our best in every match, it’s not a matter of improving game by game, the fans insist that in each match we have to play at our top level.
“It’s been quite a challenging experience for me, as I always have to be at the highest standard of my ability every single game.”
Rezaei: Why Iran teams struggle in ACL
For role-models and veterans, Esteghlal do boast some of IR Iran’s most experienced players with captain and goalkeeper Mehdi Rahmati and vice-captain Khosro Heydari boasting over 135 international caps between them. A factor that, Rezaei believes, gives the Tehran side the edge over former club Zobahan.
“I honestly believe that last year with Zobahan we could have reached the final instead of Al Ain [who the side lost to in the Round of 16]. I think this was a lot to do with a lack of experience in the team,” says Rezaei.
“This year it is totally different. This year my team and team-mates have a lot more experience. We have players who have played in World Cups, European leagues and big tournaments, so the atmosphere in the club is totally different.
“We also have the support of around 90,000 fans each game which is a big help to our team. For example, they played an important factor in our play-off win over Al Sadd. And match-by-match we are getting better and better.”
The second leg comes just a week later at Al Ain’s Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, and Rezaei and his team-mates will be without the six digit numbers in support. However, there will be no mistaking the demands from the fans back home.
With Iran lacking an AFC Champions League winner since the tournament revamp in 2003, the expectations is there, from both players and fans, for Esteghlal to end that record.