To Russia with love: Arzani the beating young heart of Socceroos

Budapest: Like many immigrant parents, the Arzanis wanted their son Daniel to work hard, make friends and get a good job. With one quick remark, they knew he had even bigger dreams.

It was 2016 and Young Socceroo Chris Naumoff had just been diagnosed with a heart condition following a routine medical test before signing with Spanish club Numancia. A medical professional himself, the case of Naumoff prompted John Arzani to push his youngest son to get an ECG test as cardiovascular problems associated with modern football were becoming an increasing risk.

Young gun: Daniel Arzani is the youngest player at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Young gun: Daniel Arzani is the youngest player at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

During that period, Arzani's academic record suggested he had a better chance of becoming a surgeon, as his parents wanted, than becoming a professional footballer. But his focus was always on playing.

"Daniel said to me, ‘Daddy, I don’t want to check my heart with a cardiologist. If I die, I want to die on a soccer field', He loves soccer too much, even more than himself," Arzani's father said.

It was the answer his parents dreaded. How could a prospective doctor have such a blatant disregard for the medical field and his own personal health? It did, however, give them clarity over his future.

The family should have seen the signs earlier. The first emerged in Khorramabad, Iran at the turn of this century.

Young gun: Daniel Arzani playing in Sydney's eastern suburbs as a kid.

Young gun: Daniel Arzani playing in Sydney’s eastern suburbs as a kid.

"I started playing as soon as I could walk," Arzani said at the Socceroos' World Cup training camp in Turkey. "For as long as I remember I’ve just completely been focusing on football. Even though my parents would hate to hear that, that’s the honest truth."

Make no mistake, this is no Bend It Like Beckham story. The Arzani family's initial hesitation over Daniel's career path had much to do with his father's past experience.

"I used to play soccer myself. I was a talented player in the national youth team [of Iran] when I was in year 12," John Arzani said. "Financially, it was not good at that time so after the trials for the young national team I decided to continue my studies."

A footballer's genetics and a passion for the game were passed on to Daniel, who grew up playing wherever he could and against anyone who would join him. There were no teams, competitions, training clinics, academies or national youth development clinics for Arzani when in Iran. The only lights that beamed down on his nightly training sessions came from a lamppost.

"I used to just play on the streets in Iran. I played with my dad’s team and with my brother a lot. He’s four and a half years older than me," he said.

"I started playing as soon as I could walk": Daniel Arzani.

“I started playing as soon as I could walk”: Daniel Arzani.

Like in many countries, victories on the streets of Iran were not measured in results but personal triumphs at the expense of opponents. It's less about goals, more about the art. There, Arzani learnt to play with the freedom of the ball at his foot, earning respect by bamboozling older players.

He moved with his family to Australia permanently when he was six years old but it wasn't until he he was 10 that he played his first game of organised football when his dad signed him up to their local team, Coogee United.

Only four years later and Arzani was on a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport.

“He just had a different footballing pedigree," former AIS coach Tony Vidmar told Daily Football Show last month. “There were many traits of his game that we saw that we didn’t see that much with other players."

He arrived in Canberra with a quick turn of pace, one so sharp the ball seemingly never left his toes. He would dribble his way out of trouble and into threatening areas. He wasn't scared to shoot from distance but it was taking players on that was his true exception.

"He just had a confidence … and I’d say a good arrogance of wanting the ball, taking players on, combining well with players around him," Vidmar said.

That confidence was later mistaken as arrogance by others. He joined Sydney FC but lasted only one season, sources suggesting he was cut short having being deemed a tactical liability. He was a smart kid but far less obedient than those who spent their lives following orders in academies that adhered to Football Federation Australia's national football curriculum. He had a relentless penchant to dribble and play to his own captivating technical strengths irrespective of the tactical set-up. By the end, he was thought to be "uncoachable" by the Sky Blues and said to have an attitude problem.

Replay

"It was a little bit frustrating. At that age when you have a lot of people telling you the one thing, you start believing it," Arzani said. "That was one of the biggest issues for me. I played a lot off my own intuition. I would see something and I would do it … I didn’t think twice about it. They would sometimes mistake my confidence on the field for being cocky or not caring."

That style left him persona non-grata at Sydney FC but won over admirers at a club owned by Manchester City, none more so than Tim Cahill, who immediately took the prodigal talent under wing at Melbourne City. After only four games, calls for his Socceroos selection surfaced along with questions over his international allegiance.

"I was asked whether I would play for Iran or Australia and I had only played four A-League games," he said. "The media just blew up over it, saying ‘Arzani wants to play for Iran' blah blah blah. It was something I had never thought about. I was only playing NPL a few months before."

If he was labelled arrogant and cocky, his decision to play for Australia suggested nothing but profound respect and appreciation.

"I talked with my mum and my dad. We migrated to Australia looking for a better life. We left my country of birth and we felt we owed the country a lot and we thought it was just the right thing to do," Arzani said.

Replay

It is a decision that has been rewarded with an immediate call-up. Of all his admirers none had a greater impact on his blossoming career than the current Socceroos coach. In being selected by Bert van Marwijk for the World Cup squad, Arzani will enter Russia as the youngest player at the tournament and the Dutch coach already hinted the 19-year-old will have a role to play there.

"He is a young player and he has to learn a lot but he is player who can make a difference. I like players who can make a difference," van Marwijk said.

The Socceroos' coaching staff have been riding the youngster during training sessions in Turkey, on top of him during every drill. But van Marwijk is unlikely to reign in his carefree attacking style during games.

Family business: Daniel Arzani with his brother and parents.

Family business: Daniel Arzani with his brother and parents.

"It’s just the way I’ve always played. I think football is a game that’s thought about too much sometimes. It’s quite a simple game. You just have to play what you see and I like to play off my instinct," Arzani said.

Watching on will be his biggest supporter since the day Arzani turned down that ECG test.

"I had the passion for playing but my parents pushed me to continue studying," his father said.

"I am so happy for Daniel that he made a decision to continue playing soccer."

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