GOAL OF THE CENTURY?
Interview: HAMID ESTILI

Hamid Reza Estili didn't just score a goal when he found the net against the United States, he Changed the way his nation fell about itself and etched himself a permanent place in Iranian history.

Adel Ferdosipour talked to the man who sent the Iranians down the road towards triumph over "The Great Satan" and their first World Cup victory.

It was one of the abiding images of the last World Cup, and at the time it made the face of Hamid Reza Estili one of the most famous on the planet. The Iranian midfielder wheeling away to celebrate his looping header was one of the most telling pictures from a match that made the front pages of newspapers all over the world.

Hamid Reza Estili celebrating the goal against USA in Lyon.

The emotion on his face, the tears in his eyes showed just how important to Estili, to the team and to the whole nation of Iran the World Cup victory over the United States in Lyon last June was.

"Today, everyone reminds me of that goal," says Estili. "People from five to even ninety-five admire me for that goal. Many Iranians who are living abroad now proudly confess that they're Iranian. That victory unified all the Iranians."

A year-and-a-half later it's a very different story. While players like Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi were being focused on by European club scouts in the run-up to the World Cup and in the subsequent months, Estili is among those who have been left behind to continue plying their trade in Iran's Azadegan league.

Apart from the growing number of players based in Europe, Iran have in Estili a veteran player with the experience of playing in Kuwait and Singapore. Just as Daei and Bagheri are instantly recognised on the streets of Tehran, so Estili has become a national hero in Iran thanks mainly to that magnificent goal against Iran's arch-rivals.

A battler in the middle of the pitch with great technical ability, Estili is currently at the peak of his career having just turned 30. But, just as for other great players, life hasn't always been so easy. "My father died when I was just five. We were not a rich family so I was urged to work," he says. "Now, when I am looking back to my childhood I appreciate all my efforts up to this stage.

I dedicate all my success to my mother. She's been both my mother and father."

While the current trend has seen many Iranian internationals heading off to pastures new, Estili was among the first to leave, albeit for less glamorous destinations. A stint at Al Qadisiyia in Kuwait was followed by two years in Singapore with Geylang United, where Jalal Talebi - who was to become Iran's head coach in World Cup 98 - was working.

Estili with the fans.

"Playing in Singapore was not too bad. Apart from playing soccer 1 learned the English language."

However, like most players in Iran, Estili's dreams lay in Tehran and especially with the red half of the city - Pirouzi.

"I loved this club from my childhood and my idol was Ali Parvin," says Estili of the man seen by many as the greatest player of his generation - the Ali Daei of his day. Parvin had played with Pirouzi before eventually moving into the coach's position.

Estili's road towards his Pirouzi dream started with Pas, and after playing in different positions, he became the heart of the senior team's midfield. At that time Parvin was both Pirouzi and national team head coach and Estili was soon drafted into the national team by his hero for a match against India.

"Every player wishes to play for the national team. It was a great opportunity to show my ability to Parvin," says a committed Estili.

After impressing with both Pas and Iran, Estili soon realised his dream and joined Parvin at Pirouzi. But all was not well. After Iran failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Parvin was sacked and decided to stand down from his position with Pirouzi as well. Estili followed suit. I had come to Pirouzi because of Parvin. So as soon as Parvin left the club I joined Bahman."

He became a key figure at the Bahman club and after a year joined Al Qadisiyia before returning to Bahman. Soon, though, he was off to Singapore where he won the inaugural S-League title in a team that also boasted the defensive talents of compatriot Mohammad Khakpour.

The exile periods in Kuwait and Singapore saw Estili forfeit his position within the national team. But it was not long before he returned to play for Bahman, and to be an inspirational figure as Iran qualified for World Cup 98.

No matter how influential Estili had been throughout the qualifying campaign, no one in Iran would have dared bet that it would be he who would score the vital opening goal against the Americans in Lyon.

In the midfield, Bagheri had more freedom to join the forwards than I did," says Estili of the goal. "At that moment I saw that Bagheri was still in our half. When (Mehdi) Mahdavikia and (Javed) Zarincheh were on the right flank I saw a place between Azizi and Daei. I ran into the box and headed the ball and it went in.

I just couldn't believe it when the game was finished, everyone was crying. We'd beaten U.S.A."

Although, as a 30-year-old, time would seem to be against him, he still harbours ambitions to play abroad again. I have had some offers from European clubs like Rapid Vienna and Greuther Furth (German second division side), but in financial terms they were not feasible for me. And also I'm too tied to my family but if I have a good offer I'll take my chance."

The 2002 World Cup may turn out to be an international farewell for the veteran player. "Our self confidence will help us to qualify more easily than in 1998. I'll be doing my best to be involved in that tournament."