An international friendly match between Iran and Ecuador. Iranian manager, Jalal Talebi, gives an international debut to Pas Tehran’s young 19 year old midfielder, Javad Nekounam. 15 years, 2 months and 19 days later, on Tuesday 31st of March 2015 in Stockholm against Sweden, the same man, now 34 years old, put on his country’s shirt for the last time while earning his 151st cap, an all-time Iranian record. Let’s put aside the number crunches. Back then, Jalal Talebi probably couldn’t have predicted he’s giving debut to an immovable object, an ever present figure, a future captain, the man with the longest international career in the history of Team Melli.
Iranian football in the last couple of decades has a history of falling in love with glamorous players, players who steal the limelight on the pitch. From the dominance and incredible saves of Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, to the phenomenal feet of the ‘magician’, Ali Karimi, the pace and deliveries of Mahdi Mahdavikia and to the never ending source of goals, the all time top goalscorer in international football, Ali Daei. But in and amongst those, there has been a midfielder who, unlike his teammates, and unlike the Iranian tradition, is very simple. Simple in terms of character, and simple in style of play. But, simplicity isn’t something that is appreciated much in this part of the world, the art of tackling, the intelligence to play a simple pass. But his managers have always known how crucial he is.
While Nekounam’s farewell to Team Melli hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves due to the coinciding controversial exit of coach Carlos Queiroz, it is difficult to deny that Iran has lost a gem. Possibly one of the most underrated players in Iranian history, he still maintains his humble personality he developed growing up in the suburbs of Tehran. With so much emphasis on Iran’s inability to produce a generation of footballers who can dominate the continental scene, in Javad there is a player who learned everything about the game in streets of Tehran but went on become one of the best holding midfielders in Spanish football at one stage.
Coming through ranks of Naft Tehran, he was soon snapped up by Pas, another Tehran club. After great performances for Pas and then a short stint in the UAE with Al-Wahda and Al-Sharja, he found himself in Northern Spain with La Liga club, Osasuna. He built a name for himself in Spain and though he had a chance to move to bigger clubs such as Villareal or Tottenham Hotspurs in England, he remained loyal to Osasuna where he went on to become club captain.
The Team Melli captain armband is a well sought after title. More than just leading the team on the pitch, it symbolises one of the most powerful positions in Iranian football as well as providing a powerful voice in the country’s footballing community. But mostly, it brings a lot of controversy and disputes. Nekounam did a great job staying away from those controversies, unlike his predecessors, Mahdi Mahdavikia and Ali Daei. He was a genuine leader who had the utmost respect from the players, they often referred to him as “Agha Javad” which means Mr Javad, refraining themselves from calling him by his first name only. In hindsight, he was never afraid to hold back any of his thoughts or hesitate to react if he sees anyone attacking his stature. It is these characteristics which brought his last manager at Iran, Carlos Queiroz, to say “Javad was the best captain of my coaching career”. Certainly a massive compliment coming from a man who has coached captains in the stature of Raul Gonzalez & Cristiano Ronaldo.
On the pitch, he has been an ever present figure in the team. He saw it all, from the most painful defeat for Iranian fans, THAT 3-1 loss away to Bahrain in 2001, to leading his country against Messi’s Argentina in 2014 World Cup. Middle Eastern countries usually have the habit of producing midfield stars who love running with the ball, the likes of Ali Karimi and most recently, Omar Abdulrahman. Often these countries face criticism for not producing smart, ball playing midfielders. But in Nekounam, there is a player who brings out the best out of his teammates with the way he plays. An intelligent player who brings so much balance to a team and even though some may not see it, he is as irreplaceable as anyone in an Iran team who will be going through a major transition sooner rather than later.
In the last few years and latter stages of his career, he has faced some negative backlash from critics who believe he is not the player he used to be. That may be true, of course approaching 35, it is natural not to have the legs as he did a decade ago, but he has been a crucial figure for Team Melli under Queiroz. Iran’s style in recent years has favoured him, a more conservative approach which limits his movement and allows him to what he does best with not much mobility.
As he leaves the national team, the huge gap he leaves in the field will be sorely missed. But it is in the changing room where his voice will need some replacing. With most of the current players in line for the captaincy being over 30 and also reaching the end of their international career soon, it is predicted that the armband will move around between a few players, such as Andranik Teymourian and Jalal Hosseini, until it finally gets to a player who can hold on to it much longer.
While the fans bid farewell to their captain, the man whose goals and leadership dug Iran out of trouble on many occasions, as well as losing their popular manager, Carlos Queiroz, the uncertain future of Team Melli is concerning. It is hard to imagine a Team Melli lineup without him. A true role model on and off the pitch, a combination of ability, mentality and attitude, perfect for every kid playing on the concrete streets of Tehran and the rest of Iran, to look up to and believe he can be the next man to lead Iran into a World Cup. He made the number 6 shirt an iconic number as it will always be remembered for him. Javad Nekounam leaves the scene with his head held up high as one of the finest productions of Iranian football after 151 caps, and certainly as one of the best Asian midfielders of his generation.
Javad Nekounam’s Career in Numbers
|151 international caps making him the highest capped player in Iran and 16th globally.|
|39||39 international goals, third highest international goalscorer.|
|15||His international career lasted over 15 years, longest in Iranian history|
|7||Played under 7 different managers during his international career.|
|4||He appeared in 4 Asian cups (2004, 2007, 2011, 2015), playing 16 games altogether.|
|2||Played for Iran in 2 World cups (2006 and 2014), playing 5 games out of 6|
|56||Captained Iran on 56 occasions, second after Daei who was captained Iran 80 times|
|5||Scored against teams from all five continents|
|1||Iran only lost one game when he was a scorer|