But Eamon Zayed knows better than most that they can also change careers and even whole lives.
“Football is funny like that,” says the former Bray Wanderers, Drogheda United, Sporting Fingal and Derry City striker. “One match – in fact, just ten minutes — can change everything.”
Flashback to last February and an Iranian league game between the capital city’s arch-rivals Persepolis and Esteghlal, this latest episode of the always fiercely contested Tehran derby attracting a typical crowd of 80,000 to Esteghlal’s stadium. On the bench for the visitors was Zayed, who’d fetched up at Persepolis a month earlier but, as an almost entirely unknown quantity at the club, had thus far seen only 45 minutes of action for his new team.
He had no real reason then to think he’d be making an appearance on this, the biggest night in the Iranian football calendar — and that was even before the game itself appeared to be under threat when, with his side 1-0 down, the whole stadium was plunged into darkness by a power failure at half-time.
“It was a bitterly cold night, absolutely freezing and I was drinking a cup of tea in the dressing room when the lights went out,” he recalls. “The coach was giving his team talk in total darkness. Next thing, I heard someone saying ‘Eamon, Eamon, the coach wants you to warm up’.”
So out he went onto the dark pitch, the setting illuminated by the ghostly light of thousands of mobile phones. “I was just taking in the scene, it was lovely,” he says dreamily.
With the power restored, he still had to wait until the 60th minute to get the nod to come off the bench, by which time Persepolis were two down. Ten minutes later, they were also down to ten men after one of their players was shown a red card.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want to be defeatist but this looks like game over’,” says Zayed. “And it’s funny how things work out. In the 75th minute, we were getting another midfielder ready to replace the one who’d been sent off. And that meant one of the strikers making way – and that was going to be me.
“But then I scored in the 80th minute and, so the physio told me later, the manager said, ‘let’s just wait and see’. Two minutes later I scored the second and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Jaysus, happy days, 2-2, this is a great result, I hope it stays like this’. Then, in the 91st minute, we had a throw-in down in their end and our manager was shouting to keep it in the corner but whatever way the throw came at him, the defender was caught off balance and our guy just skipped away and, probably because I was buzzing after scoring two goals, I was the only one of our players in the box when the ball came in — and I turned and fired it into the corner.
“It was a special moment but it happened so quickly I couldn’t really take it in,” he recalls. “It was more a feeling of ‘is this happening?’ because it was so surreal. It was only afterwards in the dressing room that it began to sink in, when one of the lads said to me, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done’. And I said, ‘No, I don’t’. And he said, ‘You know what Maradona is like in Argentina? You’re going to be like that now here’.”
How Eamon Zayed ended up in Iran in the first place is a story in itself. Having left Derry City at the end of a 2011 season which had seen him named the PFAI Player of the Year, the 29-year- old from Sallynoggin was pondering his options when an international agent got in touch, alerted by his goalscoring exploits in the Airtricity League and also by his handful of international appearances for Libya, the country for whom the former Ireland U21 cap had been able to declare, thanks the parentage of his Tunisian father.
“This agent had never seen me play but he thought ‘I could market this player’ and that’s how it works these days,” Eamon laughs. “It’s mad really. You get agents ringing you and saying, ‘I know you’re a great player and you can do this and that’ – and you’re thinking ‘you’ve never seen me play, mate’. They just Google people. Anyway, an agent in Iran who knew this other agent told him there was a team there who needed a striker. And that’s how I got the invitation to join Persepolis.”
Although the financial terms of the deal were “very good”, as Eamon puts it, he was still wary of taking such a leap into the unknown. So he did his own internet research and discovered Persepolis are regarded as the Manchester United of Iran, a club with massive support who play their home games in the national stadium. Seeking more information about the country, he also contacted the Irish embassy in Tehran.
“I got a picture of what it was like to live there,” he says. “I’d only ever heard bad things about the place but they told me the people were friendly and that I would enjoy it. And they said, ‘you’ve nothing to be scared of, you will be safe here’.” He was also put in touch with Mick McDermott from Belfast, who was working in Tehran on the management staff of the national team, and who offered further reassurance about daily life in the city as well as encouragement about the standard of football in the domestic league. He also gave Eamon what would turn out to be one piece of invaluable advice: “He said: ‘whatever money they’re offering you, make sure you get as much as you can up front. Because you will face a fight to get the rest of it’.”
A few days before last Christmas, Zayed flew to Tehran, agreed a deal — with a lump sum duly paid up front — and, having popped back to Dublin to enjoy a brief festive season with his family, returned to Iran early in the New Year, only to be given a rude surprise on his very first day on the training pitch.
The problem was it had been the Persepolis president not the manager who had signed him — indeed, subsequent to the player agreeing terms, a new manager from Turkey had been appointed and, as Eamon discovered when he attempted to introduce himself, the incoming boss hadn’t the first clue about the Irishman.
“Who are you and what position do you play in?” were his opening words, at which point Zayed’s agent got out his iPhone and tried to show an eight-minute You Tube clip of goals the striker had scored for Drogheda. After barely one minute, however, the manager indicated he’d seen enough. “Look, I’ll be honest with you,” he informed the player. “I didn’t sign you so all I can do is see you in training.”
A difficult month of acclimatisation, on and off the pitch, ensued.
“The players couldn’t speak English, the manager didn’t know who I was, I was on the bench all the time and because the pollution is disastrous in Tehran, I kept getting nosebleeds,” is how Eamon sums it up. “So it was really difficult and I had to question what I was doing there. But the team hadn’t had great results either and at the end of January the president went to the manager and said, ‘I signed this player, the team aren’t doing well, so give him a chance’. So I got to play in the second half of a match, which ended 0-0. And then, five days later, we had the derby…”
The super sub’s sensational hat-trick made Zayed an overnight sensation in Iran, and beyond. Back at his hotel, an old man who was attending a wedding reception pressed one hundred dollars into his hand as a thank-you while other guests crowded around to have photos taken with him.
As his fame grew, he also made an appearance, with an interpreter, on the Iranian equivalent of the ‘Late Late Show’, schooled in advance in how to wish the country a ‘Happy New Year’ in Persian – the date in question, he discovered, being March 21 in the year 1391.
“That was, like, okay, this is different,” he smiles. “Playing football in Ireland, two people might recognise you walking down the street. Over there, it was the whole nation. Overnight, it made me a celebrity.”
His headline-grabbing hat-trick also transformed his standing as a footballer.
“Everything changed for me after that. My mates back home were slagging me because Goal.com do a World Player Of The Week and I got that, with Drogba and Torres behind me on the list that week. And if I hadn’t scored those goals, I would probably have come home and signed for a team in Ireland. But now the manager respected me. And that was the most important thing — I’d proved to him and the rest of the players that I could play.’’
Zayed went on to confirm his fluency with even still goal-scoring feats for Persepolis.
“In March, in the Asian Champions League against Abu Dhabi’s Al Shahab, in front of 86,000, people, I scored the first three in a 6-1 win and, for the whole of the second half, the whole stadium was singing my name. And that’s when the whole thing really went to another level and they started calling me ‘Mr Hat-Trick’.”
Living up to his new billing, Zayed grabbed yet another treble in the course of scoring 12 goals in 15 games, a run of form which made the signing of a new contract a formality. But then in August his wages didn’t come through, although he was assured he would get them the following week – only to be told the same thing again on successive weeks all the way through to October. It was a grim mantra with which he was all too familiar from his time in the League of Ireland. “Oh yeah, and one of the reasons I was in Iran was for that not to happen,” he observes.
International sanctions against the Iranian regime had seen the rial collapse in value against the dollar. And since foreign players are paid in dollars, the upshot has been a steady draining of the league’s foreign talent, with some players even taking their grievances to FIFA. In Eamon Zayed’s case, however, his parting with Persepolis was amicable if unavoidable, the club giving him a part-payment of the money owed and agreeing to cancel the remainder of his contract so he was free to move elsewhere.
Back home again, he had interest from a number of clubs, including Limerick, Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers and Derry. But just before Christmas, he was on his international travels again, flying out to investigate a six-month offer from the Dubai Sports Club. The latest from there is that he expects to find out in the next couple of days if the deal is on.
Meanwhile, he’s keeping fingers crossed that his long-running efforts to play competitively for Libya finally bear fruit. Although he has turned out in the national colours in four friendly games, problems with having his registration processed have persisted from before the Libyan revolution to the present day. The new football authorities in the country have told him that they’re confident the situation can now be resolved, opening up the tantalising prospect that he could get on board their World Cup qualifying campaign and maybe ride it all the way to Brazil in 2014.
And why not? As Eamon Zayed knows, in football almost anything can happen.
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