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Naser Hejazi: The Life and Death of a Modern Legend

by ALI CHENAR

25 May 2011 17:14Comments

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A star's talent, a warrior's courage.

[ obit ] Few lives have captured the drama and the tragedy of daily existence in Iran like that of Naser Hejazi, the country's legendary football player and coach. If Hejazi might have been a greater footballer had it not been for the interference of politics, he could hardly have been a greater man. He passed away Monday morning in Tehran.

"Don't I have a conscience? I am not blind. I see people and I see their troubles." This was part of the last interview Hejazi gave in Iran. Not long before, he had been interviewed by the Voice of America. To their questions concerning Iran's domestic affairs, he responded politely, "If I have something to say, I'd rather say it in Iran to the Iranian media." A few weeks later, he did just that, giving a brave and honest interview criticizing the government for what he called "ignoring the problems people are facing." He observed, "The government is saying it gives people 40,000 tomans, like our people are beggars! Our people are not beggars! They sleep over rich reserves of oil and gas. It is the government's duty to work for them, to give them access to their resources, to serve them." Hejazi was like that -- if he had something to say, he would say it openly, in the very face of his adversary.

Naser Hejazi was born in 1949 in Tehran's Aryana district (now known as Malik Ashtar). His father, who owned a real estate agency, had moved to the capital from the city of Tabriz. The young Hejazi's first athletic interest was basketball, but his high school coach saw a natural goalkeeper in his slim, tall protégé. Thus began a career in football as turbulent as the unfolding history of Iran. Playing for the Nader and Taj clubs in Tehran, Hejazi's success as a goalkeeper made him an easy selection for the national team.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was a regular member of the Iranian national side. He appeared in the 1972 Munich Olympic Games and returned four years later in Montreal. In both 1972 and 1976, he started in the squad that won the Asian Cup, and he was a member of Iran's 1978 World Cup team in Argentina. By then, he was a legend in Asia. Thirty years later, the Asian Football Confederation recognized him as the continent's second greatest goalkeeper of all time. As the 1970s, the golden decade of Iranian soccer, were coming to a close, international clubs had taken notice of Hejazi. He was invited to the United Kingdom to try out for Manchester United. After a successful audition, it seemed his next step would be playing in Old Trafford.

That was not to be. Iran was now gripped by political turmoil, and no one would give Hejazi the necessary paperwork to transfer to Manchester United. As the new regime came to power, he had some difficult choices to make, like many other Iranians. He decided to stay. He later said, "It was, it is, my country." The new government decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics, for which Hejazi had qualified. And an even more frustrating development followed: Players older than 29 were disqualified from participation in the national team. One can only imagine his torment in those days -- an athlete who had virtually reached the gates of Manchester United, now unable to represent even his own homeland.

He persevered. In a documentary about Iranian football made in the early 2000s, he gave an explanation as simple and noble as his character: "We were at war. You do not abandon your country in war." His patriotism was not to be doubted. He continued to play for his club team -- Taj (crown) had been renamed Esteghlal (independence) after the Revolution -- and became its captain. In 1986, he went to Bangladesh to coach the Mohammadan football club. The story has it that the team did not believe the applicant was the legendary Naser Hejazi and checked his references with the Asian Football Confederation before hiring him. He took Mohammadan to the next level, winning several titles and beating Iran's Persepolis team in an unforgettable match. The 1990s saw him coaching Esteghlal again, and he was its helm when the team was runner-up for the Asian Club Championship. He coached several other Iranian clubs and remained one of the most highly regarded figures in the country's football scene.

Hejazi would have lived and died as a legend based solely on his record in Iran's most popular sport. However, that was just one aspect of his character. His independence earned him both adversaries and admirers off the pitch. In the 1980s and 1990s, he refused to play the political game. Highly critical of officials who exploited sports events for political gain, he seldom acted according to their wishes. Often asked to comment favorably about the official stand on one political matter or another, he would answer questions only about the match or the sport of football. This did not mean that he was apolitical. He sent shockwaves when he announced that he would run for the presidency in 2005. As he remarked to reporters, "Why can politicians come to our matches and stadiums and make political statements, but people from the world of sport can not enter the world of politics?" He was disqualified from running, but somehow he said what he wanted to say: "Enough with the politics and being manipulated by the politicians."

Naser Hejazi will live on in the memories of millions of his countrymen from all walks of life and from every part of the political spectrum -- for his athletic career and certainly for his courage. Stricken with lung cancer, he was as steadfast as ever. He gave his final, famous interview in between hospital visits. When he was home for the last time, he rushed to a meeting of the Football Federation to testify about a controversial match. He died as his fans and friends were praying in the streets around Kasra Hospital for his recovery. It was a death worthy of a warrior, and justly so. He lived the life of warrior -- with great victories and equally great losses, with uncompromising dignity and unquestionable honor.

In childhood photo, Hejazi standing on the left.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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