AFC - Only one man in the history of football has scored more than 100 goals for his country, standing above all-time greats such as Pele and Ferenc Puskas and modern-day stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
That man is Islamic Republic of Iran legend Ali Daei, who netted an incredible 109 goals in 149 appearances for Team Melli, a staggering statistic that earns his place as the-AFC.com’s next ‘Asian Icon’.
Clubs: Esteghlal Ardabil, Taxirani, Bank Tejarat, Persepolis, Al Sadd, Arminia Bielefeld, Bayern Munich, Hertha Berlin, Al Shabab, Saba Battery, Saipa
International appearances (Goals): 149 (109)
The legend begins
After starting his footballing career as a teenager in 1988, Daei’s ability to find the back of the net with regularity at his early clubs saw him snapped up by Tehran giants Persepolis in 1994, by which time he had already begun what would wind up as a record goalscoring spree with the national team.
A league title with Persepolis followed in the 1995-96 season, but it was at the AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates later that year that Daei alerted the wider world to a talent that would make him one of the most feared strikers ever to come out of Asia.
Now at Qatar’s Al Sadd, Daei scored a goal a game in the first round of the 1996 AFC Asian Cup as Iran progressed to the quarter-finals on top of their group, but that paled into insignificance compared to what happened next.
With the Iranians and Korea Republic tied at 2-2 midway through the second half of the quarter-final, Daei took over. The striker put his side 3-2 up on 66 minutes before scoring another three to take his tally to four as Iran swept aside the Koreans 6-2 to advance, before ultimately finishing third after a penalty shootout defeat to Saudi Arabia in the last four.
“That match changed my sporting life because after that, I was transferred to Germany and my life totally changed,” Daei, who finished the tournament as top scorer with eight goals, told the-AFC.com earlier in the year.
Now 28, Daei’s time to test himself in Europe had arrived as Germany’s Arminia Bielefeld came calling and, after only a season in the Bundesliga, he was on the move to one of the biggest sides in world football: Bayern Munich.
A year with the German giants saw Daei become the first Iranian to play in the UEFA Champions League as Bayern finished runners-up, while he also won the Bundesliga. Hertha Berlin then swooped for him in mid-1999, the same year he would win the AFC Footballer of the Year.
Daei spent three years in the German capital with highlights including a brace in a 2-1 UEFA Champions League win over Chelsea and another goal in the San Siro against AC Milan.
“I learned many things [in Germany] and one of the most important things I bring to the Iranian teams now is the discipline I learned there,” added Daei, who returned to Asia with the UAE’s Al Shabab in 2002.
A year after Daei moved to Germany, the international team would compete at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, 20 years after their only previous appearance at the tournament.
The competition provided one of the most memorable matches in Iran’s history as Team Melli claimed a 2-1 victory over the USA in a game that grabbed the world’s attention.
Although Daei did not get on the scoresheet, the forward’s defence-splitting pass teed up Mehdi Mahdavikia for the decisive goal and the country’s first-ever FIFA World Cup win.
Defeats to Yugoslavia and Germany either side of that victory meant the Iranians exited at the first hurdle, but Daei insists the class of ’98 was the best national team he played with.
Records start to tumble
Daei netted another three in the 2000 AFC Asian Cup in Lebanon as Iran reached the quarter-finals. Twenty international goals in 2000, meanwhile, was more than any other player in world football managed for their country.
The striker then bagged 10 in the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign only for Iran to lose to the Republic of Ireland in the UEFA/AFC Intercontinental play-off as a golden generation narrowly missed out on a second successive FIFA World Cup.
Towards the end of 2003 came arguably Daei’s biggest achievement when a goal against Lebanon saw him surpass Ferenc Puskas to become the highest-ever goalscorer for a national team after striking for the 85th time.
Three more goals in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, where Team Melli suffered more penalty shootout heartache to hosts China in the last four, left Daei on 14 AFC Asian Cup goals, a record that still stands to this day.
Still scoring at an incredible rate, Daei became the first male player to reach 100 goals for his country following four against Laos in 2004 en route to qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
The forward’s 109th and final goal for Iran came in a 3-2 friendly win over Costa Rica in March 2006, before Team Melli were eliminated at the first hurdle in Germany as Daei bowed out from international football.
“I think this record is for Iranian football, not only me. It is also because of other good players who were playing in the team with me and it was a gift from God,” said Daei.
“I think all records are there to be broken, so maybe it will be broken in the future.”
What happened next?
Daei would go on to win the Iranian Pro League as player/interim coach with Saipa the following year before hanging up his boots.
Stints at the helm of the national team, Persepolis and Naft Tehran followed, while he is now back as head coach of Saipa.
Inducted into the AFC Hall of Fame in 2014, Ali Daei’s legend will live for years to come.