Former Brighton winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh was accompanied by Porto’s Mehdi Taremi and ex-Nottingham Forest striker Karim Ansarifard when England drew Iran in the World Cup.
The 28-year-old, coming off the back of a return to the Eredivisie with Feyenoord last season, recalled having a particularly fearless attitude as Iran awaited their group stage opponents ahead of a third consecutive World Cup.
He said: “To be honest, we were watching the draw and before they went to pick the third team for the third group, we said it would be super exciting, super nice if we dropped into that Group B.”
Jahanbakhsh and company’s wish came true as Team Melli landed in a fascinating group that included England, the USA and now Wales.
Yet the midfielder, who featured at both the tournament’s Brazil and Russia editions as an up-and-coming superstar, is not ignorant of the monumental challenge they face by coming up against the Euro 2020 finalists.
He admitted: “It’s a very, very tough group. With England, it’s one of the best generations they’ve ever had – they can field three very strong sides at the same time.
“The likes of Harry Kane have so much quality. I love watching the other players in my position too like Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.”
Jahanbakhsh is one of the few Iranian players, alongside 2021 Puskas award contender Taremi, to have faced such formidable opposition both within the Premier League and the European stage. He is no stranger to carrying the high hopes of a nation which has never made it into the knockout stages of the tournament, having captained Iran in 2018’s nail-biting 1-0 defeat to Spain as a 25-year-old.
And despite having worn the armband throughout Iran’s World Cup qualification run, the Qazvin-raised midfielder still has to pinch himself whenever he leads out his teammates.
He explained: “It’s just unbelievable. It’s something that I dreamed of as a kid. Whenever I have the chance to wear the captain’s armband I do it with all my heart because I know how much football means to people.
“We know how passionate people are back home. And if you’re the one who is leading a team representing 85 million people into games, it’s just a very proud feeling.”
Iran have been drawn in Group B alongside England, USA and Wales at the forthcoming World cup in Qatar.