Words by Sina
Name: Morteza Pouraliganji
Club: Naft Tehran
Position: Defensive/Central Midfielder
Iran came into the Asian Cup with a lot of media attention on Carlos Queiroz to see if any of the up and coming young players will be featuring in the tournament to reduce the average age of the rather old Iran side. Morteza Pouraliganji is a player who not many people even inside Iran, had heard of before the 2015 Asian Cup, but by the time the tournament had ended, he was considered as one of the best young players to appear at the tournament. Predominantly a defensive midfielder, it surprised a lot of people when he started Iran’s first game against Bahrain at Centre Back. The injury to Pejman Montazeri a few weeks before the tournament and some disappointing performances by Amir Hossein Sadeghi for his club Esteghlal, gave Queiroz some headaches in regards to who could come into the team at Centre back with such short notice and next to none preparations. Having said that, Pouraliganji justified his selection with some stellar performances and in some cases, having the upper hand over his experienced defensive partner, Jalal Hosseini.
He’s only 22 years old and plays his football in Naft Tehran in the Persian Gulf Pro League and is a product of the club’s youth system and production line which has been successful in recent years. This is a club who in comparison to the their Tehran neighbours, Esteghlal and Persepolis, have a fan base close to none so the lack of pressure has given them the ability to bed in a successful production system and give youngsters a chance. Players such as Alireza Beiranvand have come through their academy but they’re also responsible for the revitalisation of the careers of certain players such as Sosha Makani and Vouria Ghafouri.
Pouraliganji made his debut in 2010 for the club and has played under some of the best young managers currently in Iranian football. A defensive midfielder by nature, he likes to control the tempo of the game and be the base and the starting point of attacking moves. Usually sitting in front of the back four, breaking up play with his great positioning and understanding of the game, and then looking for a pass to build up a move forward. In some ways he does remind me of his captain in the Asian Cup, Javad Nekounam, and his style of play in his younger years at Pas Tehran around a decade ago. Morteza’s intelligence and composure on the ball, and his movement and positioning off the ball makes him a great prospect for the future of Team Melli and he could very well fill the huge gap in midfield which will become vacant soon with the possibility of Nekounam’s retirement.
With the current 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 systems being implemented by Queiroz at Team Melli, he can very well slot in as the ‘Anchor’ in the team and do what he does best.
Going back to his Asian Cup performances, for a player who hadn’t even made 100 league appearances for his club, to come into the national team setup and play a huge part in a major tournament at a position which he’s not familiar with, I think that’s a testament to the player’s maturity, talent and versatility which Queiroz favours. As a midfielder, his passing abilities are naturally more superior in comparison to centre backs and this was evident in his stats after each game. In Iran’s first game, his number of passes and passing accuracy was one of the top three in the entire team. He won more individual battles than Jalal Hosseini and in terms of breaking up play and anticipation, he was as good as his partner.
There has been a lot of criticism towards domestic football in Iran in recent years, due to the lack of young players being produced but the likes of Pouraliganji, his Naft teammate Alireza Beiranvand and Foolad’s Soroush Rafiei prove there’s still hope, although, faint. In my eyes, the real challenge facing Iranian football isn’t to produce talents, but to develop these talented players to maximise their full potential. Players such as Javad Kazemian, Mehrzad Madanchi and Mehrdad Oladi are names which come to mind when one thinks of talented youngsters who for various reasons, couldn’t live up their hype and realise their potential as they got older. But I believe with Pouraliganji we have a player with talent but also with the right attitude and he’s at right club to make the step up and develop further.
His current manager, Alireza Mansourian, was one of the best defensive midfielders to play in Iranian domestic football of his generation and I believe he can be the perfect mentor for Pouraliganji. Mansourian and Carlos Queiroz will provide the ideal guidance which you would want for him.
The future is bright and a move to Europe shouldn’t be out of reach. He has certainly proved that Queiroz was right to trust him. Putting aside his detrimental mistake in the Quarter Final against Iraq where he gave a penalty away with a rash challenge, he remained reassured and composed at all times and his performances were getting better as the tournament went on.
All in all, I think Queiroz has found a gem, a real prospect with the right mentality and providing he makes the right decisions for his career, he could go very far. As for now, he’s back at his club playing his natural Defensive midfielder role, and we could very well see him strut his stuff on the continental scene again with the AFC Champions League coming up soon. For Team Melli, he could lead the transition of generations which is needed very imminently but in regards to his position, it remains to be seen whether Queiroz will continue to pick him at Centre Back or move him to his favoured position in Midfield.