It was a classic Cristiano Ronaldo goal.
Evading his marker Manuel Da Costa as the ball was swung in by João Moutinho following a short corner on the right flank, Ronaldo strolled forward into the six-yard box and thumped a header beyond Munir Mohand Mohamedi.
The early goal did not just hand Portugal the lead over Morocco in the Group B game – it also made history. The header marked Ronaldo’s 85th career goal for the Portuguese national team, moving him ahead of the Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskás as the top European international goal scorer of all-time.
But Ronaldo, 33, has a long, long way to go to catch up with the leading international goal scorer period – an Iranian named Ali Daei who hit a scarcely believable 109 goals in 149 international appearances, despite not once hitting the back of the net at a World Cup finals.
It is a remarkable record. After rising to prominence at Iranian sides Bank Tejarat and Persepolis FC – where he averaged a goal almost every single game – a young Daei was first called up to the national team in 1993, to play in the ECO Cup in Tehran. He failed to score as the host nation went on to beat Turkmenistan in the final, but got off the mark a few weeks later against Chinese Taipei in qualification for the 1994 World Cup, eventually finishing Iran’s campaign with seven goals.
It was a promising start to his fledgling international career, but little did anybody know he would go on to surpass the likes of Gerd Müller, Pelé and Puskás in Fifa’s international record books.
Goals in World Cup qualification campaigns ultimately make up the bulk of his record-breaking haul. He managed a grand total of 36 as Iran fought to reach the 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 tournaments, with a further 23 coming in AFC Asian Cup qualification matches. The Maldives and Laos suffered most at the hands of Daei – he hit a grand total of eight goals against both nations – while in 1996 he managed five in a single match as Iran thrashed Sri Lanka 7-0.
That wasn’t the only outstanding result, or individual performance. In 1997 he netted twice as the poor old Maldives fell to a 17-0 loss, while at the ripe old age of 37 he added a further four to his tally as Iran beat – you guessed it – Laos 7-0, as Iran booked their place at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
It was to be Daei’s second appearance at a World Cup finals after the 1998 tournament, but once again he disappointingly failed to find the target. In France Iran scored just two goals – both coming in a famous win over the United States which nevertheless failed to see them reach the knockout stage – while in Germany they managed the same total only to come bottom of their group behind Portugal, Mexico and Angola.
Daei’s prodigious goal scoring ability also largely deserted him after he earned his big move to Europe in 1997. He enjoyed stints at Arminia Bielefeld, Bayern Munich and Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga and had the honour of becoming the first Asian player to feature in a Champions League match while at the Olympiastadion. And yet he managed just 25 goals in 142 games across various competitions, eventually transferring to Al-Shabab in the UAE League in 2002.
But it will be for his incredible international record that Daei is forever remembered. “I think this record is for Iranian football, not only me,” he recounted to the Tasnim News Agency last year.
“It is also because of other good players who were playing in the team with me and it was a gift from God. I think all records are there to be broken, so maybe it will be broken in the future.”
It would appear however that for all of his talent – not to mention the incredible start he has made to the 2018 World Cup with Portugal – that player will not be Ronaldo, who still sits 24 goals behind having turned 33 in February. Daei’s incredible record should be safe for a little longer yet.
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