Sardar Azmoun is back in the UEFA Europa League after joining Zenit; learn more about Iran's biggest footballing star.
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With 2.9 million followers on Instagram, Sardar Azmoun has not quite reached Lionel Messi's level (108 million followers), but Zenit's Iranian forward is a massive name in his home country, and at 24, could yet become a big star the world over.
What they say
"He is improving all the time. He has to keep his feet on the ground, work hard and make the right decisions. If so, he could be a real star of Iranian and Asian football for years to come."
Carlos Queiroz, former Iran coach
"Azmoun is close to me, and not just because he has Turkmen roots ... I am more strict with Sardar than with the others, and I have the right to be – his father gave me permission. Azmoun has ten million fans in Iran, and he gets funny thoughts now and then. I have to speak to him a lot so he does not pay too much notice to them."
Kurban Berdyev, Rubin coach
International: 45 appearances, 28 goals
UEFA club competition: 16 appearances, 6 goals
Domestic competition: 138 appearances, 36 goals
What you might not know
• Compared by some to Zlatan Ibrahimović, Azmoun was once dubbed the 'Iranian Messi' though it is not a comparison he welcomes, saying: "I don't dribble past defenders like the Argentinian. I cannot understand why they compare us at all."
• His relationship with Berdyev – his coach at Rubin (and vice-president at Rostov) – was strengthened by the fact that they have a common language, Turkmen. "Berdyev is like a father to him," said the player's agent.
• He took on the No69 shirt during the first of his two spells at Rubin, as it is the vehicle licence plate number for his home region, Golestan in north-east Iran.
• His father Khalil Azmoun was an international volleyball player, and Azmoun followed in his father's footsteps for a while before switching to football as a trainee at the Iranian Manchester United, five-time champions Sepahan. Rostov assistant coach Dmitri Kirichenko said of him: "Sardar has great positioning skills. That is in his genes, I guess – his parents were seriously into volleyball."
• Anticipating, perhaps, a move to the Premier League, the tattoos on his left arm are in English: "Love me for what I am" and "If people are trying to bring you down it only means you are above them".
• He likes horses.
• Having moved to Russia aged 17, he has matched Ali Daei's record as the top Iranian goalscorer in UEFA club competition with six goals (see table below). He scored his first with Rubin in 2013/14, then five more with Rostov in 2016/17. He has not played in UEFA competition since.
• He announced his retirement from international football, aged 23, after last summer's FIFA World Cup claiming that insults he was receiving from Iran fans were making his mother ill: "This has put me in a difficult position where I must pick one or the other – and as a result I pick my mother." He did, however, return a few months later and scored four times as Iran reached the semi-finals of the Asian Cup in January.
What he says
"Ali Daei is my role model among Iranian players, and Zlatan is my role model among foreign players. I want to play like him."
"[Ali Daei] was my hero when I was a kid. If Ali Daei had been born in another country they would have made a statue of his legs and put it in the middle of the city because he has achieved so much."
"As a player one of my ambitions is to play in the English Premier League. I always fancied playing for Arsenal under Arsène Wenger."
"My greatest wish is to lift the Champions League trophy one day."
Most appearances by an Iranian player in UEFA club competitions*
35: Mehdi Mahdavikia (Hamburg)
23: Ali Daei (Bayern München, Hertha Berlin)
21: Mehrdad Minavandchal (Sturm Graz)
19: Ashkan Dejagah (Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg)
16: Sardar Azmoun (Rubin, Rostov)
13: Saman Ghoddos (Östersund)
12: Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar)
11: Javad Nekunam (Osasuna)
10: Reza Ghoochanneijhad (Heerenveen, Standard Liège, APOEL)
Most appearances by an Iranian player in UEFA club competitions (only players who have scored more than one included)*
6: Ali Daei (Bayern München, Hertha Berlin)
6: Sardar Azmoun (Rubin, Rostov)
5: Saman Ghoddos (Östersund)
5: Mehdi Mahdavikia (Hamburg)
2: Karim Ansarifard (Olympiacos)
*UEFA club competitions means European Champion Clubs' Cup/UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Intertoto Cup