Former Iranian football star and coach Ali Daei was sacked from his job as manager for Saipa FC on May 2 after he spoke out against his players being badly paid. Daei, who holds the world record for top goal scorer, criticized Saipa FC club officials for not paying players the amount they deserve.
“You boast a lot but when have you stayed true to your commitments?” Ali Daei shouted as he left following his dismissal — directly addressing Mostafa Modabber, the CEO of Saipa FC. “People were protesting outside your place, not outside my home or my place of work. You seem to have forgotten that.”
Ali Daei then spoke openly about Modabber and his past. “I do not know a real person by the name of Mostafa Modabber,” he said. “As far as my imperfect memory tells me, I knew him as Commander Ghafour when he was the head of security at IRIB [Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting]. It was interesting that he introduced himself as ‘Modabber’ on an episode of Navad [a popular sports program on Iranian TV]. When he spoke I found his tone of voice familiar and I saw that he was the same Commander Ghafour that I had known, the one from Ardabil. How did he become Mostafa Modabber? I wish somebody from the Registration Office were here so I could ask him whether people can change both their first and last names.”
Ali Daei was referring to Commander Ghafour Darjazi. Darjazi was allegedly involved in the 1989 assassination of Abdulrahman Ghasemlou, the Secretary General of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), which had demanded autonomy for Iranian Kurdistan. Two months after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an armed Kurdish rebellion erupted in the province, ending in the military defeat of the Kurdish forces and resulting in Ghasemlou escaping to Paris. After the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government representatives met with Ghasemlou in an effort to negotiate an agreement, and although meetings took place in Vienna, the two sides could not agree on a resolution. Then, on July 13, 1989, he and two of his companions were assassinated —a crime that the Austrian government accused the Iranian government of orchestrating. Commander Ghafour Darjazi has been tied to the murders. However, what Daei does not know is that Commander “Ghafour” is also a pseudonym. The CEO of Saipa FC’s real name is Amir Mansour Bozorgian-Asl.
On July 13, 1989, Ghasemlou arrived at an apartment in Vienna at 5 Linke Bahngasse to meet a delegation from the Islamic Republic as part of a so-called “peace” process. He did not have a bodyguard with him and had taken no security precautions. According to the information available, Mohammad Jafari Sahraroudi, the head of Kurdish Affairs at the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence, Fadhil Rasoul and Abdollah Ghaderi-Azar, two of Ghasemlou’s companions, and Ghafour Darjazi, who was responsible for the security of the Iranian representatives, were also present at the meeting.
After two hours, negotiations stalled and Ghasemlou suggested they should continue talks at another date. But shortly after he made this proposal, a flurry of gunshots could be heard — neighbors reported hearing two distinct weapons. Ghasemlou was shot in the forehead, temple and throat. Soon after, the police arrived and arrested the representatives from the Islamic Republic. However, they were released after a few months and returned to Iran.
After their return, the representatives changed their names more than once. Commander Ghafour Darjazi became Mostafa Modabber and used this name when he was appointed the CEO of Saipa FC.
But before he was dismissed as the club’s head coach, Ali Daei had never said anything about Modabber’s past — he had never exposed his identity during all the months they had been working together. Daei and Modabber even discussed the possibility that Daei might be appointed as manager for the Iranian National Football Team, and Daei made suggestions about his potential own successor as Saipa’s head coach. It was only when Daei was fired that he exposed Modabber’s past — demonstrating that, although the Iranian public thinks it knows Ali Daei, Iran’s most famous footballing figure, Daei has kept a significant amount of information out of the public eye.
Sporting officials and prominent sports personalities have had differing views of Daei. When Franz Anton Beckenbauer, a representative of the German Football Federation, greeted teams preparing to compete in FIFA’s 2006 World Cup competitions in Germany, he said: “I am here to welcome Mohammad Dadkan [president of the Iranian football federation], Branko Ivanković [head coach of the Iranian National Football Team] and the Iranians who have come to my country. I also congratulate the German ambassador to Iran because Iran is going to be one of the 31 countries that are going to be our guests. But allow me to especially welcome Ali Daei, one of the best footballers for Bayern Munich in the last 100 years. We were proud to have Ali Daei next to us with Bayern.”
In summer 2004, Ali Parvin, the now-retired long-time Persepolis footballer and coach, said: “Mr. Daei! You are only famous, not popular. You cannot even do two kick-ups. Your brother [Mohammad Daei] got into a fight with the managers of Persepolis on the stands the day we were playing against each other. We did not say anything. But now you are saying that the fans of Persepolis are thugs. Didn’t the same people whom you now call ‘thugs’ make you into the Ali Daei that you are today? Now everybody in Iran is riffraff except you? Go and ask the people who the riffraff is — you or us.”
Velibor "Bora" Milutinović, the international football coach, said in 2006: “For the first time, I want to confess to something that will shock you. In 2001 I was the head coach of China’s National Football Team and to get to the World Cup we had to compete in Asia. I told the president of China’s football federation: ‘We have two choices. Either we will be in the same group as Ali Daei’s team, in which case we will not climb to the Word Cup. The second is to be in a group where Ali Daei is not.’ We chose the second option and climbed to the World Cup.”
Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, a retired footballer and current coach, said of Daei in 2013: “This gentleman has fixers. He has fixers everywhere. Go and see what tax [people like him paid] in recent years. Fixers reduced his tax. He grabs land by the hectare but he still behaves as though we owe him something and claims to be Mr. Clean.”
And many more people have views on and have made comments about Daei, about his reputation as a celebrated goal-scorer and about his coaching credentials, which have been patchy.
A Life with Numbers
When people talk about Pelé, the former Brazilian football star who FIFA labels “the best footballer in history,” they point to his amazing achievements in football, his short stint in politics, his appointment as the Brazilian Minister for Sport, as well as his significant contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes.
But the story of Ali Daei is different. He was born in 1969 in Ardabil, scored 109 goals for the Iranian National Football Team and won the title of the best scorer in the history of international football. He then started Daei Garment Inc., and little by little turned into a businessman with a deep knowledge of the import-export industry, especially at the height of the last round of international sanctions against Iran. At the same time, he coached all of Tehran’s football clubs, apart from Esteghlal, and built up the image of a philanthropist, both online and offline.
In 1989, Ali Daei was accepted on to a course to study metallurgy at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. At the same time, he used the opportunity of being in Tehran to attend tryouts for Tejarat Bank FC, and was discovered by the late “legendary Iranian goalkeeper” and coach Nasser Hejazi. Hejazi later said that he chose this 192cm-tall, lean man because of his sharp mind and intelligence. The fact that he was a student of Sharif University was also a point in his favor.
Two years later Daei was invited to join the Iranian National Football Team under the head coach Ali Parvin. “The gentleman called me and said that if I wanted to join the national team I must sign a contract with Persepolis,” he said in an interview in 2005. “And I signed with Persepolis because I wanted to get to the national team as soon as possible.” By “gentleman” he clearly meant Ali Parvin, but in the same interview he pointed out: “My brothers and my whole family were Esteghlal fans. I was not a fan of any particular team or colors but, in any case, everybody leans toward his family.”
In 1993 he made his debut for Iran’s national team by playing as a substitute in the ECO Cup against Pakistan. He scored his first goal for the national team during his sixth game, in which Iran played Taiwan. The next year, he became famous in Iran during the qualification competitions for the 1994 FIFA World Cup by scoring the three goals against Japan, Iraq and North Korea.
Eventually, he became Iran’s national team’s top scorer — and teams across Asia began to fear him. Iran defeated some of the most important Asian teams while Ali Daei played for them, including South Korea, Iraq and Japan, each of which conceded four goals to him.
“Because of my devotion to Imam Ali [the first Shia Imam and the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad] I am trying to get the number of my goals to 110,” he said in an interview in 2004. The numerological value of the name “Ali” in the Arabic alphabet is 110.
But according to FIFA’s figures, Ali Daei has scored 109 goals in 145 official games for the Iranian National Football Team. Daei believes the two goals that he scored against Afghanistan in the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea should be added to his total, but FIFA categorized the Busan games as under-23 competitions and not national team competitions.
Daei scored the highest number of goals for the Iranian national team against the Maldives and Laos (8 each), Lebanon (6) and Sri Lanka and Nepal (5 each). He also scored many goals in friendly games with Bosnia, Ecuador, Ukraine, Mexico, Costa Rica, Paraguay and Libya. Perhaps his only regret and the only dark spot on his record is his failure in world cups — he never scored a goal in FIFA World Cups. His only relative success was to pass a ball to Mehdi Mahdavikia that led to Iran scoring a goal against the US national team.
Space Rocket or the World Cup?
“I have my own specific view,” Ali Daei said when I once asked him why he kept changing teams. “How long you stay with a team or stay faithful to a jersey is no longer the rule. I believe that in professional football, each player must think first of getting ahead and then of his personal life and his financial advancement.”
Daei has played for Taxirani FC, Tejarat Bank Football Club, Qatar’s Al Sadd, Persepolis (twice), Germany’s Arminia Bielefeld, Bayern Munich, Berlin’s Hertha BSC, Dubai’s Al Shabab, Saba Club and Saipa. Altogether, he has scored 113 goals for these clubs. However, the goals he scored at club level have not been very impressive. For instance, he played 59 games for Berlin’s Hertha side but scored only six goals. He scored three of those six goals against English team Chelsea and Italy’s Milan FC at UEFA Champions League competitions — when the whole world was watching and determining how good he was.
His return to Iranian football was marked by controversy, including his quarrels with Ali Parvin, Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, Amir Ghalenoei and other well-known figures in football.
In 2004 Ali Daei was invited to his alma mater, Sharif University of Technology, to deliver a speech. When a student asked him when Iran was going to win the World Cup, he laughed and said: “the national team will become the World Cup champion when Iran launches a rocket into space.” In 2011, a column in the newspaper Iran Varzeshi taunted him, and asked: “Iran did launch a rocket — but when are we going to be the world champion?”
Daei’s coaching career started off triumphantly. He joined Saipa FC in 2006 after having a dismal experience with the Iranian National Football Team at the World Cup. In the seventh week of the Iranian Premier League competitions, Werner Lorant, Saipa’s German head coach, suddenly resigned and returned to his country. The team’s management appointed Daei as the interim head coach. Saipa won the premier league championship under his management. It was his first and last championship at the Iranian Premier League competitions.
Then Daei was appointed as head coach for Iran’s National Football Team by the direct order of Mohammad Aliabadi, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s vice president and the head of the Physical Education Organization, the predecessor to the Ministry of Sports. But later, when Iran lost to Saudi Arabia and Daei was dismissed, he claimed that Ahmadinejad had personally ordered his dismissal. Next he joined Persepolis and embarked on a series of quarrels with Persepolis CEOs that hit the headlines, first with Habib Kashani and then with Mohammad Rouyanian.
He then went on to coach, working with every Tehran club apart from. Even when he was coaching Qom’s Saba Club, he forced the team to practice in Tehran.
The Influential Celebrity
Ali Daei has always denied that he has connections with Iran’s elites or “higher-ups,” and he has occasionally spoken out against corruption and cronyism. After a devastating earthquake hit the western Kermanshah province in November 2017, he rushed to help people there, opening an account to receive contributions from across the country, although the judiciary later blocked on grounds of lack of transparency about how the money had been spent. He denied that charge as well as criticisms from others and claimed people were impeding his efforts to help victims of the earthquake.
Of course, Daei was not the only Iranian football star to have engaged in philanthropic activities. He was, however, occasionally criticized for boasting too much about it. “My new year’s wish is that I will receive fewer letters from the people,” he told the newspaper Iran on the eve of the Iranian new year on March 21, 2010. “This way, I will know that the people of my country are living in peace.” He was, of course, referring to appeals he had received for financial as well as non-financial help.
But, despite his denials, his relations with “higher-up” institutions remains unclear. Daei has repeatedly asked the judiciary to become involved in the financial affairs of the Iranian football federation in order to combat corruption while strenuously asserting that he himself is completely clean.
But, for example, when the Football Federation’s Disciplinary Committee ruled that he should be suspended for four games when one of his headers injured the footballer Sheys Rezaei’s face in 2006, members of the parliament from his hometown Ardabil, Urmia and Tabriz objected to the “unprofessional” nature of the referees’ decision and forced the federation to drop the ruling and cancel the punishment. The next day, Daei went to the parliament, met with the members of the parliament and told them that Abdolrahman Shah-Hosseini, the head of the federation’s Disciplinary Committee, should be removed due to his lack of “expertise”. And, within 24 hours, Shah-Hosseini and other members of the committee resigned en masse.
Daei was one of several coaches to claim the interference of “invisible hands” and referee bias in football matches. But he was the only coach who succeeded in having a referee dismissed by claiming that the referee, Mohsen Ghahremani, was accepting bribes.
There are also questions surrounding the contract between Daei Garments and the football federation for providing the national football team with their outfits, about his relations with the Customs Bureau and his imports and about his 14 years of being the head coach of so many football teams in Tehran.
After Ali Daei became a coach, he quarreled with all of his superiors at all the clubs that he coached for — and that includes the national football team. And each time he was dismissed, he went public with unsavory information about these senior figures. The latest is the Saipa FC matter, and the revelation that Mostafa Modabber is none other than Sardar Ghafour Darjazi, an assassin. Daemi carried out similar campaigns against Ali Kafashian, the former president of the Iranian Football Federation, the former CEO of Persepolis, and Mohammad Rouyanian, another former CEO of Persepolis.
Until his last day with the football federation, or with Persepolis FC, he never objected to the interference of President Ahmadinejad’s government in football affairs, but the moment he was dismissed he accused the government or the president ordering the dismissals. Now he has revealed that the CEO of Saipa is a former member of the Revolutionary Guards and that he is working under a fake name. But surely he has known who he has been working with for the last two years?