If the Islamic revolution had not happened in Iran at the end of the 1970s, Nasser Hejazi would have joined Manchester United. Perhaps the Iranian would have been the goalkeeper the team needed in the early ’80s to win titles instead of cups. Had that been the case, perhaps Alex Ferguson would never have been needed at Old Trafford and would have instead gone to Liverpool or London. On the other hand, maybe then Hejazi would never have stayed home to become a successful manager and a prominent and well-loved anti-establishment figure before his death at the age of 61 in 2011. He had some life. No wonder fans called him “legend”.
Over 25,000 of them attended his funeral in Tehran – many times that number had wanted to – in a ceremony closely monitored by the government. At times when he lay in Kasra Hospital battling lung cancer, it seemed as if there were a similar number of people waiting outside below a massive portrait of the star hanging next to the main entrance. Only those who made it to his room will know if the ‘get well soon’ cards from Sir Alex Ferguson and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – it takes something special to receive good wishes from that pair – were displayed.
If so, one card would likely have been more prominent than the other. Not being allowed to become a Red Devil was the biggest professional regret of his career, and the player blamed the Iranian government for its failure to transpire.
The unlikely journey of the ‘Eagle of Asia’ to the North of England started in South America at the 1978 World Cup. Hejazi impressed as Iran drew 1-1 with Scotland (though the mix-up for the own goal that gave Ally MacLeod’s men the lead is best forgotten). It wasn’t just his late save at his near post to deny a Joe Jordan header that impressed but also the assured way in which he dealt with everything the increasingly desperate Scots threw his way.
Showing just why German great Sepp Maier was an inspiration, Hejazi was not only a mean shot-stopper but a genuine leader. Quick off his line, with intelligent distribution and a Peter Schmeichel-esque throwing ability, he had the full package. United were looking for a successor to the long-serving Alex Stepney. Paddy Roche didn’t quite fit the bill, but the unflappable Hejazi soon showed what he could do in training with the likes of Joe Jordan and Lou Macari, players he had frustrated just weeks before in Argentina.
“I went to England and was selected by Manchester United. I was there for three months and played five (reserve) matches,” Hejazi recalled later, adding that United manager Dave Sexton wanted to sign him permanently.
It wasn’t that simple. The Iranian Revolution started in 1978 and, in January 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini replaced the Shah. The upheaval first meant that there was nobody at the Iranian Football Federation to deal with the paperwork and, by the time there was, the new government announced that players over 27 could not go overseas.
Hejazi was 30 but by then United had plumped for South Africa’s Gary Bailey, who paid his fare to Manchester for the chance of a trial. “They (Iran FA) didn’t give me my clearance,” Hejazi said. “It was bad luck for me. If you play for Manchester, it is a good opportunity for you to be a big player in the world.” He could perhaps have left but as he once said: “It was, and is, my country.”
It was understandable then that Hejazi did not have a great first impression of the new regime, a feeling that would only grow. He claimed that he was thrown out of the national team the following year after the 1980 Asian Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of Kuwait. It was a disappointing end to a distinguished international career during which he won three Asian Cup winners’ medals.
His club career continued with Esteghlal. It was with the famous Tehran giants, in their former guise of Taj, that he started his professional career in 1967. Hejazi had been a promising basketball player in his teenage years but had no cause to regret the switch to football, and certainly not after helping Taj to the 1970 Asian title.
Hejazi left Iran in 1986, spending a season in Bangladesh before hanging up his gloves. Staying in South Asia, he started life as a coach, firstly at a club and then later of the national team. Soon he was back home, where he proceeded to coach a number of Iran’s top clubs but, just as in his playing days, his coaching career will be best remembered for his time with Esteghlal. He took the Blues to the title in 1998 and the final of the Asian Champions Cup the following year. He continued coaching until 2007, but he had become increasingly disillusioned with the way that politicians in Iran interfered in the game.
President Ahmadinejad’s penchant for meddling in football was covered in one of Wikileak’s least surprising cables. All in Iran knew that he was involved in the sacking of Ali Daei as national team coach in 2009 and that he had called for Ali Karimi to be reinstated to the team before that. He was far from the only politician to try to get his hands on the beautiful game. It is an established practice in Tehran and the effortless popularity that a player like Hejazi held was what politicians wanted.
Hejazi tried to see if it could work in the opposite direction and, in 2005, he nominated himself as a candidate for the Iranian presidency. It struck a chord with fans and, in Iran, there are a lot of fans. But with such a profile and such popularity, it was always unlikely that he would be allowed to run and the Council of Guardians, the overseers of the constitution, barred the former goalkeeper. “Why can politicians come to our matches and stadiums and make political statements, but people from the world of sport cannot enter the world of politics?” Hejazi asked.
Even before that, his opinion of the nation’s leaders was low. He had never been afraid to speak his mind about the state of the country – not an easy thing to do in Iran – but he never lost his love of football. His coaching career ended in 2007 and he slipped into a coma last year watching his beloved Esteghlal play a league match on television. Following his death, his coffin was taken to the iconic Azadi Stadium. There, in one of Asia’s great arenas, thousands of fans, including 3,000 or so women (his daughter was the captain of the Iranian Futsal team), stood as Hejazi’s coffin was placed in the six-yard box before being taken away to be buried.
‘The Eagle of Asia’ had finally been laid to rest but his memory lives on in Iran and beyond, both for the footballer and the man. He may never have joined Manchester United, but he managed to make a huge mark on Iran and Asia.