By Michael Church
HONG KONG, Dec 4 (Reuters) – Persepolis will have waited 11 weeks for their shot at glory by the time the Asian Champions League final kicks off but assistant coach Karim Bagheri told Reuters it will be worth it if they can bring the continental prize back to Iran.
The Iranian champions booked their place in the final in October but the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic means they are still a long way from knowing who their opponents will be at Doha’s Al Janoub Stadium on Dec. 19.
While East Asia’s top clubs have been sharpening their competitive edges against each other in Qatar to decide who takes the other spot in the final, Persepolis have been restricted to the early rounds of their domestic title defence.
Iranian football’s problems are not limited to those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and Bagheri said Persepolis winning the Champions League would have a lasting impact on the future of the game in Iran.
“Winning the Asian Champions League would definitely have very positive outcomes for us,” Bagheri, who represented his country at the 1998 World Cup finals, said from Tehran.
“Whether financially or, looking at it from a bigger perspective, it could persuade young talent into taking up football and keep trying to become professionals.
“This would encourage them to keep trying to attain the success they’re dreaming of.
“So, fingers crossed that football will further flourish across Iran, both at club and national level, enabling us to have a big pool of trained players who can build the future of Team Melli (national team).”
The Tehran-based club have won the Persian Gulf Pro League title for the last four years and Bagheri said continuing that domestic success over the next few weeks would be vital to their chances of winning Asia’s elite club competition.
“We must keep the spirits very high, stay fully concentrated and be motivated to win,” the former international midfielder added.
“We are to face tough rivals domestically and are making every possible effort to gain good results at home which would help boost the team’s morale prior to flying to Qatar.”
Persepolis have already lost prolific striker Issa Alekassir, who was handed a six-month ban prior to the Champions League semi-final against Saudi club Al Nassr for a “discriminatory gesture”.
Bookings in the semi will also rule out Ehsan Pahlevan and Vahid Amiri, while central defender Shojae Khalilzadeh has left the club to join Al Rayyan in the Qatar Stars League.
Iraqi midfielder Bashar Resan, however, has been persuaded to remain at the club despite publicly announcing his intention to leave in October.
Resan was a key member of the Persepolis side that lost the Asian Champions League final to Japan’s Kashima Antlers two years ago but much else has changed at the club since then.
Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic left in June 2019 and his replacement, former Iran defender Yahya Golmohammadi, has overseen a steady turnover of players.
“Both domestically and internationally we had a tough job last season following several changes made to the squad, including the addition of a new head coach and players,” Bagheri said.
“That’s why making it to the finale means a lot to us after having to go through different challenges.”
Playing most of the Champions League campaign in a biosecure bubble in Qatar has only compounded a fraught financial situation at the club, making the $4 million prize for winning the competition all the more attractive.
The biggest motivating factor, however, is the chance to become the first Iranian club since PAS Tehran in 1993 to be crowned Asian club champions.
“Winning trophies in any tournament is very sweet,” Bagheri said.
“If we return home with the trophy packed in our luggage it’ll be an honour to take pride in, not only for Persepolis but also for the whole football family in Iran.”
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)