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From Homelessness to Beating Ronaldo

October 25, 2018
11 min read
When he defended Iran’s goal from a header by Xavi,  Beiranvand ensured Iran's advance to the Asian Champion League final
When he defended Iran’s goal from a header by Xavi, Beiranvand ensured Iran's advance to the Asian Champion League final
Persepolis FC made history on Tuesday, October 23 when it reached the Asian Champions League final for the first time
Persepolis FC made history on Tuesday, October 23 when it reached the Asian Champions League final for the first time

Persepolis FC made history on Tuesday, October 23 when it reached the Asian Champions League final for the first time, drawing with Qatar's Al Sadd in front of a packed audience at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.

The victory cements the reputation of Persepolis goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who also plays for the Iranian national team. Thanks to his goalkeeping — which saw off a late goal attempt by Al Sadd’s Xavi — Persepolis sealed a 2-1 result on aggregate in the second leg of the teams’ semi-final clash. This secured Persepolis’ advance into the Asian Champions League (AFC) final for the first time in its history.

In Iranian football, the heroism of Beiranvand has been long anticipated. Back in 2015, TV show host Ehsan Alikhani asked footballer Mehdi Rahmati to invite a young footballer who had experienced “pain” in his life to appear alongside him on Honeymoon, an inspirational TV program broadcast during the holy month of Ramadan. Rahmati chose Alireza Beiranvand, a rookie goalkeeper for the team Naft Tehran.

Rahmati’s decision to invite Beiranvand had in turn been inspired by football coach Alireza Mansourian, who had told Rahmati about Beiranvand, and whose life, he said, should be the subject of a Hollywood movie — which would fit right in with Alikhani’s desire to present a tear-jerker story for his audience.

Until that night, Beiranvand was perhaps known to devoted football fans, but for the general public he was still unknown. At the time, Mehdi Rahmati was the goalkeeper for the Iranian football team Esteghlal and Alireza Mansourian was the head coach of Naft Tehran. The other guest was Reza Enayati, another coach and retired footballer.

The 195cm-tall Beiranvand introduced himself by saying that he had been born in the village of Sarab-e Yas in the western province of Lorestan. “When Mehdi Rahmati told me to appear on this show, I thought I must have donated my heart or my kidneys and that was why I was invited,” he later joked in an interview with Fars News Agency.

The Child Shepherd

But when Beiranvand talked about his life, it was mesmerizing. He had spent his childhood up to the age of 14 looking after sheep. When he reached adolescence, his father did not want him to go to school and did not want him play sports like other teenagers. “My father was against me playing football,” he told Honeymoon’s audience. “And not only football. He was against any sport and even against going to school. He would tear up my football outfits. ‘Go to work,’ he would tell me. ‘Don’t go to school and don’t play football. These things bring in no money.’ We were a big family and my father was a laborer.”

Beiranvand would hand over his wages to his father, though he saved a little bit for himself. When he had enough for a bus ticket from Khorramabad in Lorestan to Tehran, he gathered his belongings and set out for the Iranian capital. “One night, without my parents’ permission, I left for Tehran with the money that I had saved,” he said. “I told myself that I would follow my dream even if the whole world was against me. I wanted to stay at my aunt’s but there were problems and I could not stay there. So I roamed the streets until one day I came across Mr. Hossein Faiz on a city bus. He approached me and asked whether I was a sportsman.”

Hossein Faiz was, and still is, one of the top coaches in Iranian football. He told the 15-year-old Beiranvand that if he paid him 300,000 tomans, just under $80, he would arrange for him to try out with a football team. “I told him that if I had that much money I would find a place to sleep,” he said. “But Mr. Faiz told me that was how football clubs work, that everybody pays it and I must pay, too. But I did not have this kind of money.”

At last the coach agreed to let him play in a friendly game without paying any money. “’I don’t want the money, but tell others that you have paid me,’ he told me. He then handed me to the captain of the team...”

“Those days I had no place to sleep. If you talk to people who sleep in the streets around Azadi Square, they all know me because I slept many nights around the square. Then one of the fellows in the team said that his father owned a dressmaking workshop. He told me to go there both to work and to sleep. I used to sew until 2am and then slept there. At 7am I started work again until noon, when I went for practice.”

It was in those days that he came to the attention of Naft Tehran’s coach. The coach saw him at Tehran Young Footballers games and invited him to his club. But going to Naft meant that Beiranvand lost his place to sleep at the dressmaking workshop. So he returned to Azadi Square and spent a few nights on the streets. Then he asked a pizza shop if he could sleep there. The owner agreed, if he would work for him. “It was more exploitation than labor. He would wake me up at 5am and told me to wash the dishes and oil the pizza trays. I told him it was not fair but he paid me no attention.”

Four Hours of Sleep

Working eight hours a day and sleeping for only four began to drive the young man crazy. He says it was because of his parents’ prayers that he found a new job. “There was this carwash close to Azadi Square,” Beiranvand said. “I worked there to have a place to sleep. One day Ali Daei [the celebrated Iranian footballer and the former captain of the national team] came there and I was told to wash his car since I was a footballer. ‘One day I am going to play for Ali Daei,’ I said. ‘I am not going to wash his car.’”

He also worked as a park sweeper and cleaner. Every morning at five o’clock he cleaned up a big park in Tehran’s Khazaneh Bokharaee neighborhood. “Somebody introduced me to the municipality for the sweeper job,” said Beiranvand. “I went and picked up a sweeper’s uniform. ‘Please do not send me to a crowded place because I am tall and everybody will notice me,” I had asked them. They said ‘go sweep the park in Khazaneh. Nobody goes to parks in the mornings.’ But eventually a relative saw me. He called my father and told him, ‘so you think your son is a sportsman in Tehran? No, dear. He collects garbage.”

And yet he is still proud of those days. “I was not doing robbery,” he said. “I was a sweeper. I earned what I did by the sweat of my brow.”

When the Naft club found out that one of its footballers was homeless, when it learned that a player for the Iranian National Under-23 Football Team (which goes by the nickname omid or “hope”) slept in a carwash and swept a park in the morning, they gave him the club’s chapel to sleep in at nights. All the club said was: “you must wake up at 5am and go sleep on the grass. If an inspector comes in, he might create problems for us.”

“I was Building my Life”

After the TV show, Beiranvand’s mother called him and asked him why he had not told them he was homeless all that time. “I was not homeless,” he answered. “I was building my life.”

And he built his life with Tehran Naft. In the spring of 2015, during the group stage of the Asian Football Federation (AFC) championship, he accomplished something that left everybody amazed. With his long arms, Beiranvand threw the ball from the penalty area of Naft right into the penalty area of Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ahli team.

After this game, the website of FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, posted his photograph on its homepage with the caption: “The Most Sensational Throw in the World.” And the Saudi news site Al-Masdar called it a “historically unique event” that would be impossible to duplicate. The AFC website called Beiranvand “a man with unrivaled arms.” More than 100 million people around the world saw the photo of him throwing the ball.

He later talked about his arms at a gathering for national team players. “I was a shepherd in my childhood,” he said. “I played a game with my father and other kids to amuse ourselves. We threw stones from one side of hill to the other. Little by little my arms became more powerful.”

The Unbelievable Throw

When he joined Persepolis Football Club, Beiranvand told Branko Ivanković, the team’s coach, that he had a special surprise for him. He stood inside the goal and threw the ball over to the goal on the opposite side. He did this with his hand, something that many footballers are unable to do even if they kick the ball with their feet.

But his ability to throw is not his only talent. In recent years Beiranvand has won the trust of all the coaches he has played with, from Naft to Persepolis to Team Melli, the national team. Despite the intense quarrel between Carols Queiroz, head coach of the national team, and Persepolis' Branko Ivanković, he was not kept out of the national team. In fact, Beiranvand is one of the only footballers who has not become a victim of the Queiroz- Branko quarrels and has been regularly invited to join the national team.

Beiranvand’s height and agility have been exemplary. However, he has had a weakness when it came to defending one-to-one kicks. Nobody remembered when he did catch a penalty kick but, all in all, they knew he was trustworthy.

And then came the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and Beiranvand’s memorable taunting of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Portuguese national team’s star [Persian video]. During the Iran-Portugal game, when the referee pointed at the penalty spot and Ronaldo took his position for the penalty kick, nobody imagined that the best penalty kicker in the world — who had scored goals with his last 18 penalty kicks for Real Madrid and Portugal — would be defeated by Beiranvand. Beiranvand caught the ball, achieving what the international football community regards as one of the most difficult tasks in the world.


Hug your Love like he Hugs the Ball

A photograph of Beiranvand hugging the ball was tweeted all over the world, as was the sentence “embrace your love the same way that Iran’s goalie hugged the ball.” Later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei used the event to implicitly criticize President Rouhani’s administration. “I ask the government’s economic team to try to solve [our] problems the same way that our national football team fought bravely and powerfully at the World Cup Competition...especially that good goalkeeper,” he said during a summer meeting with members of Rouhani’s cabinet.

So on the night of Tuesday, October 23, the same young man who used to sleep in the streets around Azadi Square, the same young man who was pitied by strangers and was given shelter for one night in their cellars or garages, once again performed a miracle for his team.

Defending the Iranian goal from a header by Xavi (Xavier Hernández Creus), the former captain for Barcelona and current halfback with Qatar’s Al Sadd, was one of the most astounding moments in Iranian football history. It will be treasured along with other history-making moments where the Iranian goal was impressively protected: Two by the late Nasser Hejazi against Kuwait in 1965 and North Korea in 1966 and the others by Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh against Australia in 1997 and the United States in 1998.


Like a Cat in Danger

In 2017, the UK’s BT Sport television network reported on the performance of David de Gea, the goalkeeper for Manchester United, during one instance. “He made his decision in less than a 24-hundredth of a second and moved,” BT Sport concluded — exactly how a cat reacts to danger. Beiranvand’s response to Xavi’s header probably falls within the same parameters. The header sent the ball in the air from less than six meters away and, thanks to Beiranvand’s efforts, it went over the goal and not in it. [Persian video].

If Beiranvand had told his father in the days when he worked for a dressmaker, at a pizza shop and as a park employee, slept in a carwash or roamed around Azadi Square looking for somewhere to sleep and survived on four hours of rest each night that he would be where he is today, he wouldn’t have believed it. 

For the moment, he is staying with Persepolis because the window for team transfers is now closed and the club cannot afford to buy a new player. But currently, he is Iran’s No. 1. The website Transfer Market announced that the opening bidding price for Beiranvand is €2 million — meaning that he is the most expensive footballer in Iran’s Premier League.


Read more about Iranian football: 



Decoding Iran’s Politics: Football and State Interference

Football Star Azizi Discusses the 2018 World Cup

150 Female Fans Allowed into Azadi Stadium





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