ISP EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Ex-Persepolis Captain Hossein Abdi

Abdi has already obtained his International Coaching Certificate, and is set to be enrolled on the UEFA Licence courses with the eventual goal of becoming only the second Iranian to gain a full UEFA Pro License, the highest available coaching badge in football today.

ISP: Hello Hossein, and thank you for giving an interview to Iran Sports Press.
Abdi: Hello to you too and it is my pleasure.

ISP: Lets go straight to the interview then if you don’t mind. Tell us a bit about your memories at Persepolis and more specifically tell us about the best Persepolis team that you were a part of, as I doubt many people would be in a better position than you to answer that, considering the number of years you played there.
Abdi: It’s very difficult to pick the best team. It all depends on what your definition of best is. Whether it means results or whether it means style of play. One team does to come to mind though. It was the team that played under Stanko. Under him, we played simpler and more effective football. We were much more at ease on the pitch because our tactical goals and targets were well defined. The players found it easier to play football.

If I had to mention the players involved in that team then we had Abedzadeh in goal, with Afshin (Peyrovani), Yahya (Golmohammadi) and Mojtaba (Moharammi) in defence, with Naeem (Saadavi) on the right flank and either Shahroudi or Minavand on the left. Mehrdad would sometimes play higher up field too and that meant that Shahroudi would stay as the left sided player. In midfield it was me, and Karim (Bagheri) and there was also Mahdavikia and Torabian up there with either Daei or Bezik the central striker. We played 3-4-3 under Stanko.

ISP: Staying with Persepolis, a few people had wanted me to ask you about a left back who you once played with, Javad Manafi, whose career was cut short tragically. He was a bit special was’nt he?
Abdi: He was an exceptional player. He grew up very quickly at the club and progressed at an unbelievable rate. I am sure that he would have been the first Iranian player to move to
Europe, long before Ali Daei, had he not gotten injured. He was a player that could change the result of a game at any time. He also made it into the national team very quickly. It was such a shame that a great talent’s career was cut short at only 23-24.

ISP: One last question about Persepolis, whilst we are still on the subject. Tell us about your thoughts on Arie Haan and the future at the club.
Abdi: I don’t think that he can cause changes at the root or structure of the club. But he may be able to fix the mentality of the players. He can improve their thinking. But lets not forget that most of the players have already developed and there might only be room to improve another 15%-20% at best.

Against Bargh Shiraz, who had been one of the most impressive teams this season, for instance, Persepolis managed to play for 90 minutes, kept it simple, concentrated and did’nt allow their opponents to come back. I think Haan can get Persepolis to play a more rational, and simpler game of football.

ISP: On a lighter note, who was your idol while you were growing up in Iran?
Abdi: To be honest, there was no one in particular. Although I always wanted to set an example for the young kids and be someone that they could look up to. But if I had to pick one name, then it would have been
France‘s number 12, Alain Giresse was his name if I recall correctly. That was also the reason that I chose that number to be my own.

ISP: Let’s move on to talk about the national team now. Why is it so quiet around the national team these days, with only negative vibes around the team, no friendly matches and not much hype a few months before our third World Cup?
Abdi: One reason for a lack of friendlies is the internal politics of our football and maybe our own unwillingness to play them. Sometimes it does not help when journalists try to push and hype up their favorite players to try to make them gain a foothold in the team. At times, even the football federation can be accused of doing so. Now add to the usual problems the fact that there are very sensitive external political circumstances around the country and you can get a better idea about the overall atmosphere.

ISP: Compare this team to the 2001 side that Branko Ivankovic’s predeccessor Miroslav Blazevic had. There are many debates as to which side is the better one. What are your thoughts?
Abdi: I think both sides have a similar structure and maybe even a similar spine. Only some personnel has changed. Individually speaking there has been some improvement in the ability and experience of the members of this squad, as many of them were present in 2001 and have only gained valuable experience.

However, if we want to pick out some points to analyze, then I would have to say that the current team does not have any evident tactic to relieve itself from pressure, during heavy attacking by the opponent. The players find it very difficult to find each other on the pitch too. Against South Korea, we pulled back far too much and dug ourselves into a hole which we found impossible to get out of during the beginning of the game.

As a team, and as a group, the current side is probably weaker than the 2001 side. But individually speaking, on a player by player basis, the current side may just be better, but only just.

But, I tell you what, sometimes it is not just about playing football and what is on the pitch. Negativity around the team and in and around the training camps can have a major influence on what happens on the pitch. What happens off the pitch sets the players’ frame of mind. Don’t underestimate its influence. The reverse is also true. Positivity can also have a major influence. They can make average players play well above their ability or they can make good players play well below their ability. Have that in mind when you think about the current team.

ISP: What are your thoughts on Ivankovic? Has he been a success for failure for Iranian football?
Abdi: The overall result or effect has been positive if we look at his years in charge of the side. I have to say that putting him under pressure right now is a big mistake and will have an adverse effect on our team and can be very costly.

ISP: If you could change him right now would you?
Abdi: No, I would not.

ISP: How about 6 months ago, would you have changed him then?
Abdi: No, again.

ISP: So you don’t think that there is a better man out there to lead our national team?
Abdi: It all depends on your philosophy towards coaches and in this case it depends on the football federation’s philosophy. You have to
ask yourself, why did we hire him? Did we want to qualify to the World Cup? Did we want him to get us to play attractive football? Maybe it was for him to get winning results or maybe he was hired to build a team for the future.

Under all those hypothetical situations I would stick with Branko other than one of them and that is the one related to playing attractive football. If that was or is the goal, then Ivankovic is the wrong man and a different coach was needed. However, I seriously doubt that this was the goal of the federation.

In fact, our team and system are arranged and trained in such a way as to only get the right result from any angle you look at it. This team will not make you rise from your seat because of its breathtaking football because its a side geared towards getting the result, and that usually means it plays very defensively at long periods of the game.

ISP: If you were the coach, would you still pick Ali Daei?
Abdi: Yes, definitely. Ali is still a very effective player for us.

ISP: What if you only had one striker in your formation, then who would you pick, Daei or Hashemian?
Abdi: I would still play Daei up front. But this does not mean that he should play all the time. But in my opinion, Daei is still a very effective player for us.

ISP: If the World Cup started tomorrow, who would you pick Mirzapoor in goal?
Abdi: No I would’nt. I would pick Talebloo. I have been impressed with him. I could also pick the Paas goalkeeper, Roodbarian.

ISP: Can you explain the thinking behind your decision?
Abdi: Mirzapoor has many weaknesses. His kicking is still poor after all these years. I remember when I was at Foolad and Ebrahim had the same problems with his kicking. I doubt it will ever improve. Also, his distribution is even worse. But one thing that he has that our other goalkeepers don’t possess is his physical presence and size.

ISP: I am sure we could sit here for hours and discuss our national team’s weaknesses, but if you had to pick one, then what would it be?
Abdi: The spaces between the players and between the different positions in the team. When a player gets the ball, then another player is usually either too close or too far away. There are no options, or possibly only one. Just look at European football, when a player gets the ball, he probably has 3 or 4 options. I think our defence is better than most people make of it, and that our tracking back, especially the midfield’s tracking back is very good. As a team we defend very well, but individual mistakes are costly and a lot of it has to do with the lack of options due to the spaces between the players and the defence and midfield as a unit. At the same time, in todays football, unlike before when teams would pass in triangles, teams pass in rectangles or squares. That shows how much football has developed and it only signifies the reality of todays modern game. But is our team even capable of sustaining passes in a triangle?

ISP: Some critics claim that some of our players don’t perform as well as they do for their clubs, when they wear the national team shirt. What are your thoughts?
Abdi: I don’t think that we can claim that our the players don’t try their best when they are playing for us. But, the answer may actually lie somewhere else. When you look at a player like Mehdi Mahdavikia and analyze his movements on and off the ball with his club and the national team, then you will easily see the hesitancy in his movements while playing for Iran. He is not sure whether he should go or stay and that stems from his insecurity over whether he will be protected by the other players or not. At Hamburg
, he will freely move forward, without looking backwards at all, because he knows that the gap left behind by him will be covered by someone else. That is just one example that goes a long way to explain why our players, most notably those playing abroad, perform at different levels for their clubs and country.

ISP: Do we have a chance to make it to the second round?
Abdi: Of course there is always a chance, but if I had to make a prediction, then it would have to be that we will not make it past the first round. Teams that are planning to make it further, have already made their preparations, tactically and probably have two or three different games and styles that they can bring. However, we only have one game and one style and that is an extremely cautious style.

Cautious teams don’t usually make it that far. We are far too defensive. What happens when we go a goal down? Do we have the ability to change our style? But I will add that a lot depends on luck and you never know what can happen in football.

ISP: Who will win the World Cup?
Abdi: Brazil or Brazil. I really think that they will win it. But I will also say something else. Don’t underestimate the England
team. They have a very good team this year and are very strong and this may just be their year.

ISP: Thanks for your time Hossein.
Abdi: It was my pleasure