Misagh Bahadoran: An unlikely Azkals standout

MANILA, Philippines - Like every young athlete who grows up kicking around a football while wearing their favorite player’s jersey, Misagh Bahadoran dreamed of scoring international goals for his country.

It was a scene that had played in the Philippine national football team veteran’s mind time and again – where he’d be Brazil’s Ronaldo playing the hero once more, only the jersey had 3 stars and a sun and the name emblazoned on the back was his own.

The knock on Bahadoran was that he tended to 'over-dribble.' His best efforts to score in the past had ended with dings off the crossbars. 

Few knew what to expect when the Philippine Azkals approached their 2018 World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain on June 11. As Bahadoran took the field in the 23rd minute to replace an injured Stephan Schrock, Bahadoran knew it would be his night. Everyone else would soon find out as well.

The shrieks of anticipation from the thousands of Filipino fans at the Philippine Sports Stadium as Phil Younghusband’s pass crossed the box in the 51st minute were just a preamble to what would momentarily become a deafening roar. 

Taking the pass off a single bounce, Bahadoran got the first step on his Bahrain defender and slid to guide the ball into the goal with his right foot.

In the madness of his greatest professional moment, Bahadoran retained enough clarity to circumvent teammates Javier Patino and Iain Ramsay as he sprinted towards the direction of head coach Thomas Dooley.

Overcoming insecurities

It was Dooley, the German-American coach who took over the squad in early 2014, who set Bahadoran on the path to overcome his own insecurities and doubts. Bahadoran had been fatigued after playing constantly with his United Football League team Global FC and had wondered if there was still a spot for him with the Azkals.

“Physically I was so tired and mentally I was under pressure because Iain Ramsay, Stephan Schrock and Patino were in my position and they’re not easy to compete with,” Bahadoran says of his beginning of training camp for the Azkals pool.

“Then Coach Dooley came to me and he was like ‘Hey what’s wrong with you, why you’re not like the Misagh who plays in Suzuki Cup, the way he runs?’ I said ‘Coach, the reason is I was kind of tired and then mentally I come down even though I worked so hard there are players who are in my position, I will not have my chance.’

‘He said ‘Misagh, when I was playing I had this situation before. When I had my chance, I took my chance.’”

Bahadoran had his chance and made the most of it. Patino would tack on another goal for the 2-1 upset over Bahrain, earning the Philippines its second ever win in a World Cup qualifying match.

The magic wasn’t over for the Pampanga-born, Iran-raised forward. 

Just 5 nights later in Qatar against Yemen, Bahadoran struck again at nearly the same point in the game, Bahadoran used a turn move he had perfected during his days as captain of the Philippines’ national futsal team before rocketing a shot off his left foot that found the back of the net.

Bahadoran had once again broken the dead lock – crediting the hard work of his teammates for creating the opportunities – and the Azkals once again earned the victory, placing them at second place behind North Korea on goals scored in Group H - known as the Group of Death. 

‘Just wanted one national team jersey’

The life of a pro footballer was not the one Bahadoran seemed destined for. 

He was born in Mabalacat, Pampanga on January 10, 1987 to a Filipina mother before relocating to Tehran, Iran, the home country of his father.

Football is the most popular sport in that Middle East nation, and the sacrifices one must make to excel at the top level did not seem worth it to his pragmatic father.

“I started to play in the street but there is no chance to easily become a football player because in Iran if you want to become a professional football player, you have to stop studying,” Bahadoran remembers. “You just have to go every single day to training at a young age and you cannot be educated.”

His dad wouldn’t allow him to play, but Bahadoran’s passion was not easily squelched. The young Bahadoran would arrive at school 10 minutes early, packing his football shoes in his bag to play alone in the street, then play again 10 minutes before the school bus arrived to take him back home.

Bahadoran returned to his country of birth in 2004 to finish high school in Pampanga, where he excelled in track and field and swimming. He enrolled in Centro Escolar University in Manila to study dentistry. His primary focus remained teeth, but he still dabbled with futsal, an indoor version of football.

Bahadoran excelled, becoming a top scorer for 5 years, winning championships and MVP awards. He was invited to play for the national team and became one of Southeast Asia’s top futsal strikers.

Football, particularly in a country where basketball remains the sport of choice for the majority, didn’t seem nearly as secure as one fixing teeth. He had been invited to play for the national football team in 2007 but declined.

Dentistry or football?

“I saw the training was not good. No facilities, no water. I said ‘I cannot stop my dentistry and do football because my future is more important.’”

Not only were players not being paid, players had to pay P100 each to rent the field, which Bahadoran couldn’t afford.

Things began to change for the team around 2009, when Dan Palami became the team manager and saw the untapped potential in Philippine football. Instead of players having to pay to play, Palami made sure players were getting paid as professionals.

Still, Bahadoran had promised to finish school, which he did in 2010. As he made plans to return to Iran to start a dental practice, he decided to give the national football team a try. Bahadoran had nothing to lose, other than time building a dental clientele. 

“I saw that everything improved, it wasn’t good but at least it’s enough because it’s for our country. It’s an honor to play for the Philippines. I said ‘OK I will stop going to work as a dentist and play for the national team.’”

Football for the Philippines? Bahadoran still wasn’t sold. He had one modest expectation and goal for his tenure.

“I was thinking I want to just get one jersey for the national team and tell my kids in the future, ‘Hey look guys I was a national team player, this is the one jersey I have.’ Until now I keep getting jerseys and jerseys. I have my first jersey of national futsal team and my national football team also,” Bahadoran says with a laugh.

Next frontier

As Bahadoran sits high in the bleachers of Emperador Stadium after Global practice one month after his 5 days of glory, there are few hints of change in his persona. He speaks with a noticeable Persian accent tinged with the friendly inflection of Philippine conversation. His English has improved noticeably over the years, and he’s quick to highlight the humor of his unique experiences.

“It’s OK,” he says as this writer apologizes for keeping him late after practice. “I usually don’t drive home to Quezon City until later because of traffic.”

Bahadoran first joined the United Football League in 2009 – the year it was established – playing for Pasargad before moving to Kaya the following year. Since 2011 he has played for Global, counting fellow Azkals Mark Hartmann and Daisuke Sato as his teammates.

“Terrible, all he gives me is trouble. He’s one headache after another that boy,” jokes Scotland’s Leigh Manson about Bahadoran, whom he has coached since taking over Global in 2014.

Turning serious, Manson lauds Bahadoran as a leader, someone he can rely on to be an example for his teammates.

“I think one of Misagh’s strongest assets is his heart. Misagh will put himself into the most dangerous tackles to win for the team. You can never fault his commitment.

“Misagh will always do what is best for the team. Misagh and I don’t always see eye to eye, I don’t think every player and every coach will always agree, but at the end of the day, Misagh knows that if the team is doing well, it’s good for him.”

The league is still well behind the 40-year-old Philippine Basketball Association in terms of popularity, but it’s getting better. Since 2011, the league has been televised by AksyonTV. Attendance remains inconsistent and is centered around a handful of the more popular teams, but there are at least a few faces in the crowds that Bahadoran doesn’t recognize on each game day.

“I think football should be televised for younger generation. Still it’s good compared to two years ago. Only my mom used to watch the games,” says Bahadoran.

“Imagine in 3 years, we used to pay P100 per training, now they are paying some of the players P400,000 to P500,000 a month. That means the sponsors, the owners, they appreciate football. Now if you play basketball, there is a sponsor and fans are spending and the owners earn a little out of it. But in football they don’t really make anything out of this but they still sponsors are coming little by little.”

Number 9 with the headband

Bahadoran was in the arena for the Azkals’ first make-or-break moment in 2010, when Chris Greatwich scored against the defending champs Vietnam en route to an upset win in their Suzuki Cup group stage match. The sport has also benefited greatly from the popularity of the Younghusband brothers Phil and James, who have become the faces of the sport in the Philippines.

Bahadoran’s own exploits have earned him recognition: just not necessarily in the Philippines.

“When I scored against Bahrain, then I went to Iran, people started to recognize me. Football fans [in the Philippines] recognized me,” Bahadoran says, before mentioning another situation after a game in Thailand.

“After the game I went to vacation there, I stayed for one week, taxi drivers recognized me and said ‘Are you the number 9 with the headband?’ I went to hotel and the reception helped me, they said ‘Hey are you the number 9?’”

Bahadoran isn’t seeking to be known for anything other than his football skills, however.

“I think one of the reasons if you’re seen more is if you go to showbiz. You get publicity,” Bahadoran says. “But I want to get publicity as a football player because that’s different. I want my supporters to be really football fans who really follow us and support us, win or lose.”

The first two games the Philippines has played in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers could not have ended any more fortuitously than they did for the Azkals. Their next match is scheduled against Uzbekistan on September 8 at Philippine Sports Stadium in Bulacan, Philippines. 

Dare to dream

Uzbekistan is ranked 49 places higher than the Philippines at 75, and if they’re going to pull of another upset, they’ll have to do so without team captain Rob Gier, who will need knee surgery after hurting himself against Bahrain.

Then on October 8, the Philippines will travel to Pyongyang to play the 129th ranked North Korea in front of tens of thousands of dedicated fans. That game will be followed by a rematch in Bahrain on October 13.

Bahadoran has faith in the system, and more importantly in Dooley. He has seen Coach Dooley move Jerry Lucena from defensive midfielder to centerback with success, and trusted his judgment when he was moved from midfielder to striker.

“Based on his experience, I think he did a very good job because now he makes the football for us very easy,” says Bahadoran. “He taught us the proper way of running, of what position to go, how to defend, when not to defend, how to press because when you don’t know these kinds of things you will be tired so fast.”

The magic question – and the one for which there is no easy way to answer – is about the Philippines’ chances of making the World Cup in Russia. Bahadoran lets out a smile, understanding that how his answer will carry much weight as Azkals fever grows and the team reaches new plateaus.

They’ve been foolish enough to dream with such audacity so far, and there’s no use quitting now.

“The chances, we cannot say anything about the chances. We are the ones who make this chance. We cannot say the chance is zero or this and that, it’s all about ourselves. The chance can be zero if we’re being lazy and not working hard or not taking it seriously, or the chance can be 100% if we put everything we have. 

“We have to give our 100%. If we give 100% then our chance is 100%.” 

– Rappler.com

Ryan Songalia is the sports editor of Rappler, a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and a contributor to The Ring magazine. He can be reached at ryan.songalia@rappler.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.