x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Fulham's Ashkan Dejagah has settled into the Premier League

Iranian midfielder, who represented Germany at youth level, drew attention for refusing to play in Israel early in his career, writes Ian Hawkey.

Ashkan Dejagah is starting to settle into life at Craven Cottage with Fulham. Jan Kruger / Getty Images
Ashkan Dejagah is starting to settle into life at Craven Cottage with Fulham. Jan Kruger / Getty Images

Midway through the first half of Fulham's 1-0 victory over Stoke City on Saturday, home supporters were presented with a neatly executed demonstration of a "Cruyff turn".

Take a guess at the identity of the man who performed this most dexterous of dummies, the manoeuvre where a player feigns to cross the ball but instead drags it back behind his standing foot and, having encouraged his marker in one direction, swiftly, elegantly proceeds in the opposite one?

No, it was not Dimitar Berbatov, the footballer on whom the limelight at Craven Cottage trains with such focus. Nor the gifted Bryan Ruiz, the Costa Rican with a wide-ranging technical repertoire.

Rather, the trick was elegantly performed by a player who, after six months feeling his way into the Premier League, is beginning to suggest that his €2 million (Dh9.6m) capture last summer, was a shrewd piece of business.

When Wolfsburg, of the Bundesliga, sold Ashkan Dejagah in August, their then manager Felix Magath made clear his regrets. "We are sorry to see him leave," said Magath of the 26 year old, "but it was clear he wanted to go to England".

There, the Fulham manager Martin Jol had been admirer of the skilled winger for a while, since his days in charge of Hamburg.

Jol also saw the potential for a relationship to develop down Fulham's right flank. The full-back, Sascha Riether, had moved to West London on loan; over the last two months especially, the attack-minded Riether and Dejagah, colleagues when Wolfsburg won the Bundesliga in 2009, have combined very fruitfully for Fulham.

Dejagah still has a great deal more to do, though, if the fame he gathered as a 21 year old is to be eclipsed by his achievements on the field.

His decision, in October 2007, not to represent the Germany Under 21 team in an away international in Israel made headlines there and in the Middle East. It drew comment from German politicians and it would put a young athlete, Dejagah, under unwelcome pressure.

Dejagah was born in Tehran, Iran. He moved to Germany with his parents at the age of two. The family made a home in Berlin and as Dejagah grew to realise he had an out-of-the-ordinary talent with ball, he also found himself classed among a special generation of young Berliners, many of them drawn from the sort of immigrant family backgrounds that had become more conspicuous in the German capital.

Friends from his time as a Hertha Berlin youth player, and in national under-age squads, were the Nigerian-German Chinedu Ede, now at Mainz, and the Ghanaian-German brothers, Jerome Boateng, who went on to Manchester City and Bayern Munich, and Kevin-Prince Boateng, now of AC Milan.

Dejagah and Prince Boateng had traits of the street footballer about them, liked to practice their Cruyff turns and other tricks. When Dejagah was given the No 10 shirt on being called up by the Germany Under 21s, it endorsed his potential.

But as Falko Gotz, a Hertha Berlin coach of the time, said, "Ashkan sometimes over complicated his game. It took him time to learn to be more direct and effective."

He made his first-team debut for Hertha in 2004, at just 18. But it would be another year and a half before he made his next Bundesliga appearance.

He had finally broken through, under Gotz, by the middle of the 2006/07 campaign, and by that summer he was looking to pursue his career elsewhere.

He had options, because of a burgeoning reputation. Wolfsburg, ambitiously assembling a squad to challenge for the title, swooped.

But soon after he moved came his eye-of-a-storm moment, the point where his professional career met a cultural crossroads.

As part of the promising German Under 21 side, Dejagah was scheduled to play in Tel Aviv. He withdrew from the party. He told Dieter Eilts, his coach, it was for "personal reasons".

He later told Stern magazine it was for "family reasons". It is fair to report that, given the cold political relationship between Iran and Israel, there was discomfort among those close to him at his making the trip.

In Germany, there was uproar. Some demanded he never again be picked for his adopted country.

Within the German Federation, they showed more sensitivity. Dejagah would add further to his Under 21 caps, and collect a winners' medal at the 2009 European championships, missing out on a starting place in the final only because of suspension.

But, unlike Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer, Sami Khedira and Jerome Boateng, Dejagah would not go on to senior caps for Germany. Instead, like Kevin-Prince Boateng, who chose to play for Ghana, Dejagah switched national jersey.

He is now an Iran international. Fifa rules allow a change of allegiance for eligible dual internationals until they have played full, senior competitive match for a county.

Courted enthusiastically by the Iran manager Carlos Queiroz, he made his debut a year ago.

He quickly announced himself as a key asset, scoring twice on his debut for the nation of his birth, in a World Cup qualifying draw with Qatar that secured Iran top spot in their third-phase group.

If Iran can extricate themselves from the four-way bottleneck with Uzbekistan, South Korea and Qatar in the June denouement of the next stage, Dejagah should be on his way to Brazil next year.


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