HONG KONG (Reuters) - From the moment Sardar Azmoun arrived on the international stage and Iran manager Carlos Queiroz compared him to Ruud van Nistelrooy, the pressure has been on the young striker to carry the hopes of the Gulf nation into uncharted territory.
Azmoun’s spinning turn and deft finish against Qatar in the group phase of the Asian Cup finals in Australia in 2015 came less than a year after he made his debut for Team Melli and prompted Queiroz to liken the then 20-year-old to the Dutch forward.
With Iran hoping for their first foray past the group stage of the World Cup in Russia after four previous unsuccessful tournament appearances, Azmoun is set to be the figurehead of their charge.
Hailing from a sporting family, the 23-year-old eschewed his father’s favoured sport of volleyball — Khalil Azmoun had played for Iran’s national team and has coached several of the country’s leading teams — to take up football.
He soon excelled, representing Iran at youth level before moving to Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan at 18, where he struck up a close relationship with coach Kurban Berdyev.
Azmoun’s talent in the air and with the ball at his feet prompted Berdyev to take him to Rostov and he played there for two seasons, while attracting the attention of clubs from some of Europe’s biggest leagues.
Despite rumours of a possible move to Lazio and elsewhere, Azmoun stayed in Russia and returned to Kazan having featured for Rostov against clubs such as Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Manchester United in European competition.
While seen as the long-term successor to Iran great Ali Daei, Azmoun’s hero is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With 23 goals in 31 games for Iran to date, Azmoun is on track to match Daei’s scoring record, which helped the country to qualify for the 1998 and 2006 World Cup finals.
Writing by Michael Church, Editing by Christian Radnedge