FIFA - As Omid Norafkan’s flight touched down on the idyllic island of Jeju, you would have forgiven him for musing over how different things easily could have been.
Less than a week ago, Iran’s talismanic midfielder – who played a starring role in helping them reach the FIFA U-20 World Cup Korea Republic 2017 – was coming to terms with the idea he would be cheering the side on from home.
A victim of his own success, the defensive midfielder has become simply too key to his club side Esteghlal – a gratifying state of affairs for the newly-turned 20-year-old, albeit if it was set to see him miss out on the trip east.
“I am proud to be making my mark in a team which has a special place in Iranian football,” he told FIFA.com. “I am the youngest member of the team and am in a very good place, so I owe it to my coaches for me making it here.”
Not only is he the most fresh-faced member of the current squad, he is the youngest player to ever feature for Esteghlal, having made his senior debut aged 18 years and 271 days. Since, he has gone from strength to strength.
Playing every minute during five of their six AFC Champions League games this season, as well as being a near-permanent fixture in Iran’s top flight since the turn of the year, he has become undroppable. No wonder coach Ali Reza Mansourian was far from keen to lose his starlet ahead of their continental clash with Al Ain.
But a change of heart from the tactician flipped everything on its head. Now Norafkan is set to take centre stage for his country, being jetted in at the last minute to join the squad. It is an adventure he is glad not to have missed out on.
“Since not all players get to participate in such a tournament, I do hope we can experience what it has to offer and get the best out of it,” he said expectantly. “With some good results, and the strong performances we expect, hopefully it can have an enriching impact on our lives.”
Selfless in the centre
Acting as the nerve-centre of operations in Iran’s midfield, it is perhaps no surprise Philipp Lahm is one of his footballing role models. “I admire the kind of players who just serve the team, devote themselves to teamwork, are impressive and only seek success.”
You can bet it would have been a major blow for Iran to step out without that kind of selfless attitude in tow. As vice-captain at the 2016 AFC U-19 Championship, Norafkan played every minute on the road to a slender semi-final exit on penalties at the hands of Saudi Arabia.
“The Asian championship gave players more experience and, in my opinion, we got some fairly good results in Bahrain,” he reflected. “Now our next goal is the Round of 16 [in Korea Republic].”
Some challenges lay ahead though, with Costa Rica, African champions Zambia and Portugal lying in wait. “Zambia is such a great and powerful team, while Portugal boast some talented players, like us, and there is no room for mistakes.”
With Norafkan’s name on the team sheet against Costa Rica on Sunday, it will at the very least see Iran cross the white line with an added bounce in their step and confident glint in their eyes.