ISP Editorial - Memories of Naser Hejazi
IranSportsPress.com – Iran legendry goal keeper, Naser Hejazi died on 23rd May 2011 after a long battle against cancer, but his memories will live with us forever. Dr Kasra Djalayer is a big fan of Naser Hejazi, and watched him play as he grew up. Here, he looks at some of the memories of Naser Hejazi.
Kasra Djalayer starts by remembering the early days of Naser Hejazi, indeed, as early as Hejazi’s second international game against Turkey in Ankara. It was on 17 September 1969 in front of 40000 fans in Ankara, and 19 year old Hejazi was seen by many as “too young”, but the Team Melli coach at the time, Zdravko Rajkov, believed in Hejazi and made him his number 1. In those days Mehdi Keshavarz, Farhang Badkubeh, Faramarz Zelli, and Aziz-Asli were all considered as top goal keepers, but Zdravko Rajkov believed in the young inexperienced Hejazi. In fact, the match wasn’t one to remember for Hejazi, as he conceded four goals in the first 45 minutes. However, Zdravko Rajkov didn’t put the blame on Hejazi at halftime, and indeed encouraged him to keep a clean sheet in the second half, and Hejazi didn’t disappoint. He didn’t concede any more goals in the second 45 minutes, and the match finished 4-0 for Turkey.
Six month, in April 1970, Esteghal (Taj) was involved in the Asian Champions Cup, which was being held in Tehran. Hapoel Tel Aviv and Taj had both looked very strong in the group stage, and had reached the final, to be played on 10 April 1970 in Amjadieh Stadium in front of a crowd of 30000 die hard Iranian fans. Again, all the talk before the match was on who will be in goal. Hejazi was only 20, and many experts believed that he was far too young to be in goal for such a big final. However, Zdravko Rajkov who was also in charge of Taj (as well as Team Melli), didn’t have any doubts in the capabilities of Naser Hejazi, and installed him as the goal keeper for the final.
The match didn’t start well. I remember when Hejazi conceded the first goal. The whole stadium went silence. There was fear amongst the fans. Some had given up all hope as Taj was trailing 1-0 after 83rd minute. But a moment of magic by Gholam Vafakhah made the scores level, and took the match in to extra time. Taj was on the front foot now, and Masoud Moeini scored a second goal for Taj, to put them 2-1 up. Naser Hejazi had a quiet game until that point, but things were about to change. Hapoel Tel Aviv came back strong and created two great opportunities to score, but Hejazi was a rock in goal and made excellent saves on both occasions. With two minutes left in the extra time, Hapoel Tel Aviv were awarded a free kick just behind the penalty box, and the free kick looked to be going in, but Hejazi made a fantastic save to give Taj to 2-1 victory in the final of Asian Champions Cup. This was Hejazi's first senior title.
I have never seen such joy and happiness amongst fans. Millions of Iranian fans poured in to the streets and partied all night. Tehran didn’t sleep that night. Following that victory, Hejazi was given the nickname of “The Young Eagle” by the press. A nickname which stayed with Hejazi to this day.
Domestically, Hejazi played a pivotal role for Taj. He was excellent in the clashes between Taj and Perspolis. In 1971, the derby between the two Tehran giants finished 1-1, but Hejazi played a massive part in avoiding defeat by Taj. After the game, even Perspolis players called Hejazi’s performance “magical”.
I still remember the Ettehad Cup final between Taj and Perspolis in June 1973. Adelkhani gave Taj an early lead in the 4th minute, but Taj came under immense pressure for the rest of the match. Hejazi was the difference between the two sides, as he produced wonderful and unforgettable saves from Perspolis stars such as Kalani, Behzadi, and Iranpaak. Taj held on for 86 minutes, and lifted the Cup.
In May 1972, and in Pyongyang, Iran faced North Korea in front of 70000 fans. North Korea had the upper hand throughout the match, but Hejazi produced six magnificent saves to help bring the team back to Iran with a 0-0 draw. After the match, the North Korean coach said that the hands of god had protected Iran’s goal.
A month later, in June 1972, Iran played in Brazil Independence Cup against the likes of Portugal (with players like Eusebio), Ecuador, and Chile. The tournament was a difficult one for Iran, but Hejazi once again showed his class. Gylmar dos Santos Neves, the legendary Brazilian goal keeper in 1958, 1962, and 1966 World Cups praised Hejazi and stated how surprised he was for an Asian country to produce a world class goal keeper like him.
In September 1974, Iran faced Israel in the final of the Asian Cup in the Azadi Stadium. I have never experienced so much excitement before a match. Hejazi was expected to miss the match with injury, as he had sustained a wrist injury. However, Hejazi declared himself fit and stated that he would keep a clean sheet. Everyone was aware of Hejazi’s injured wrist, but the “Asian Eagle” was true to his word, and kept another clean sheet despite injury. Iran won the match 1-0, giving Iranian people another sleepless night. After the match the Iranian players saluted Hejazi, and called him the backbone of the team.
Hejazi played a big part for Iran in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and helped Iran reaching the quarterfinals, where they got knocked out by USSR 2-1. After the game, USSR’s players showed their relief and stated how difficult it was to score two goals past Hejazi.
Two years later, Iran qualified to the 1978 World Cup for the first time in history. The Iranian lions were given a tough task as they were grouped with Holland, Peru, and Scotland. Iranian team were huge underdogs, specially against Holland who were expecting to score over 10 goals. Naser Hejazi again proved a superstar, and made 33 saves alone in that match, 11 of them being excellent goal scoring chances. Holland went on to win the match 3-0, but Hejazi’s World Class performance kept the score respectable for Iran.
During the match, the Dutch commentator stated “I believe another star was born tonight, and his name is Naser Hejazi”. When the Dutch Arie Haan came to coach Perspolis in Iran nearly 30 years after Iran – Holland match, he still could remember Hejazi’s heroics. In an interview with Donyaye Varzesh publication in Iran, Haan stated how Rene Van Der Kerkhof and Johan Neeskens were admiring the efforts of Hejazi at half time during that World Cup match.
The Iranian national football team, and Taj had massive success during the late 60s and 70s and they owed a great amount to Hejazi. However, while countries like Mexico were making statutes of their footballing heroes such as Antonio Carbajal (one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time), Mostafa Davoudi, a member of Physical Education Department in Iran brought in a rule to ban athletes over 27 years of age competing at national level. Sadly, the first victim of this ruling was Naser Hejazi who had to retire from Team Melli at the tender age of 29.
Hejazi was the first Iranian goal keeper to play at the World Cup, and was named by AFC as the second best goal keeper of the century.
Hejazi was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, but even then he tried to overcome the challenges of life by continuing as club coach. However, after a long battle against cancer, Naser Hejazi died in hospital at 10:55 AM on Monday 23rd May 2011. His body will be laid to rest on Wednesday 25th May 2011, after a funeral in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
Naser Hejazi was an inspiration to millions of Iranians. The way he fought his battles as a player and as a coach, and the way he lived his life made Hejazi a hero. Iranian people loved him, and the masses of people who visited him in hospital in his last few days, or prayed for his health outside the hospital in his dying days is a testimony to the man. He might not be amongst us anymore, but his memories will always live with us.
IranSportsPress.com would like to specially thank Dr Kasra Djalayer for sharing these memories of Naser Hejazi with us. They are truly inspirational. Many of the younger generation of Iranians did not get the opportunity to watch Naser Hejazi in action, and these memories will hopefully show them why Hejazi was a hero to so many people.