(IranSportsPress.com-AFC)- Around the turn of the millennium, Islamic Republic of Iran fans witnessed a special time in their country’s footballing history as a number of talented players made their breakthroughs.
It can be argued that none of them retains the kind of recognition and fame that Ali Karimi has.
With magical dribbling skills and a knack for the unpredictable, Karimi earned plaudits across the continent for much of the 2000s.
On the day he turns 39, the-AFC.com takes a look back at the career of the ‘Asian Maradona.’
Asian Icon: Ali Karimi
Clubs: Fath Tehran, Persepolis, Al-Ahli Dubai, Bayern Munich, Qatar SC, Steel Azin, Schalke 04, Tractor Sazi
International Appearances (Goals): 127 (38)
AFC Player of the Year: 2004
Making a mark
Ali Karimi played in the 1999-2000 Asian Club Championship.
After learning his trade as a teenager at Naft Tehran and hometown club Saipa, Karimi’s introduction to the men’s game came at Fath Tehran.
The club doesn’t exist today, but it will always be remembered as the second division side that gave an 18-year-old Karimi his senior debut in 1996.
He immediately caught the attention of other clubs with his displays for Fath and it seemed it would be only a matter of time before he left for bigger things.
In 1998, before he had turned 20, Karimi made a high-profile move to Iranian giants Persepolis.
If there were any doubts as to whether the young talent could make it on the biggest stage, none would remain by the time Karimi departed from Persepolis in 2001.
In his three-year stay at the club, Karimi played a part in the league-and-cup double in his first season before clinching the league title again in 2001.
This was in addition to Persepolis’ continental run in 1999-2000, where his winner against Suwon Samsung Bluewings secured third place at the Asian Club Championship.
Dazzling in Dubai
With his stock rising, Karimi soon made the move abroad – but not to Europe, as many thought he would.
Instead, he took the short flight across the Gulf to join Al Ahli in the United Arab Emirates.
It was a decision that took many by surprise but Karimi proceeded to do what he knew best: weave his magic.
He became Al Ahli’s go-to man and contributed 44 goals from midfield in four seasons.
Karimi’s best season in the red jersey of Al Ahli came in 2003-04, when he topped the league’s scoring charts with 14 goals.
That wasn’t all; Karimi then netted both of his side’s goals in the 2-1 win over Al Shaab in the President’s Cup final, as Al Ahli lifted the trophy for the second time in three seasons.
For Karimi, 2004 was turning out to be a great year as even better things awaited him that summer.
An Iranian legend
As soon as he made his mark at the club level, Karimi received a national team call-up.
In 1998, he made his debut for Iran against Kuwait.
The same opposition would witness Karimi’s first international goal later that year, as he netted in their clash at the Asian Games in Bangkok.
Team Melli went on to win gold and Karimi was the name on everyone’s lips.
The AFC Asian Cup in 2000 marked Karimi’s first major tournament for Iran but the rising star was unable to make a proper impact as Iran crashed out in the quarter-finals against Korea Republic.
Four years later, Karimi would take revenge for the defeat in the next edition of the tournament in China.
Karimi opened his account for the tournament with a goal against Oman as Iran came from behind to grab a 2-2 draw.
Karimi netted a memorable hat-trick against Korea Republic in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup.
In the quarter-finals, Team Melli went up against Korea Republic once again and Karimi turned on the style.
In a magical performance where he seemed to put no foot wrong, Karimi clinched a 4-3 win for Iran with a sumptuous hat-trick, each of the three goals showing the range of his footballing skillset.
Although Iran could only finish third in the tournament, Karimi ended up as the joint top-scorer with five goals and also earned a place in the team of the tournament.
To cap it all off, Karimi’s brilliant year concluded with him receiving the AFC Player of the Year award.
The question now was whether Karimi could make it in Europe, where many of his peers had tried their luck.
As expected, a move materialised in the summer of 2005, when the Iranian star was snapped up by Bayern Munich.
He became the third Iranian to play for the German giants after Ali Daei and Vahid Hashemian.
Although he enjoyed a notable start to his time in Bavaria, Karimi’s time at Bayern was hampered by an ankle injury.
Yet, he did manage to emulate his compatriot Daei by scoring in the UEFA Champions League.
While he was at Bayern, Karimi also managed to add a cherished record to his name by representing Iran at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Despite the delight of making it to his first World Cup, it would turn out to be a difficult tournament for him.
Placed in a difficult group alongside Portugal, Mexico and Angola, the Iranians found the going tough and ended the tournament at the bottom of their group.
Karimi featured in the opening 1-3 defeat to Mexico and the 0-2 reverse to Portugal before being benched for the final game against Angola.
A wave of surprises
In 2007, Karimi left Bayern and returned to the Middle East.
Karimi’s two years at Bayern were far from ideal but it was undoubtedly a special chapter in his illustrious career, one in which he took his game to the world stage.
The ensuing years saw Karimi turn out for Qatar Sports Club before re-joining his beloved Persepolis to much fanfare.
A season in Tehran was followed by yet another surprise move from the midfield magician as he joined promoted side Steel Azin in 2009.
The highly ambitious club saw Karimi as someone who could turn their fortunes around and he did not disappoint, going on to score 14 goals as they finished fifth.
The surprises didn’t stop there as Karimi then signed for Schalke 04 in January 2011.
He had reunited with Felix Magath, his coach at Bayern, but in the half-season that followed, Karimi could only make two appearances and went on to sign for Persepolis for a third time in the summer.
Ending on a high
By now, Karimi was on the wrong side of 30 but if anyone thought he would go out quietly, he proved them wrong with some impressive performances in his final few seasons.
Although Persepolis finished 12th in the league, Karimi netted 12 times and registered eight assists.
He also scored thrice as he led the Tehran side to the knockout stage of the 2011 AFC Champions League.
Karimi’s form earned him a return to the national team and he went on to score in the 4-0 win over Maldives in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
The final hurrah of Karimi’s career came in the 2013-14 season when he joined Tractor Sazi.
It was his eighth club in a career that had spanned almost 15 years.
The ‘Asian Maradona’ ensured he went out on a high as he led Tractor to the first silverware in the club’s history, with the triumph in the Hazfi Cup final.
Looking back, Ali Karimi’s career is a story of a player who thrilled fans in four countries and beyond with a knack for the extraordinary and an undying desire to win.
It is only fitting that he is recognised as one of Asia’s footballing icons.