Leverkusen, Frankfurt Airport, the contours of Europe were all far behind the Bayer 04 group and the target airport in Mexico City was a dot on the screen as a still remote target. While the majority of the party used the time to catch up with sleep after the emotional home game against Freiburg, the leaving parties for Rudi Völler and the early morning journey to the airport in Frankfurt, Azmoun was involved in a special duel with Moussa Diaby: In the card game UNO it went back and too with the few spectators of the encounter witnesses to an emotional exchange with alternating winners.
Sardar Azmoun stands out – not just because his first name rather than his surname is on the back of the number nine's shirt. From youth football in Iran he joined Bayer 04 at the age of 27 after time in the Russian league. The path to the Bundesliga is not the only oddity in the life of a horse owner and former volleyball international.
Sardar Azmoun loves contests. Football and card games in any case and earlier volleyball but the biggest hobby for the 27-year-old is his 52 racehorses. He bought his first one ten years ago: "Now there are so many that I sometimes forget what they're all called." That has nothing to do with a lack of respect as his animals mean everything to him. "Before games I always watch videos where I can see my horses. I get really annoyed if my friends or family members forget to send them to me. I love them and I’ll have more time for them after my playing career."
Horses played formative role in the life of Sardar Azmoun long before he kicked a ball for the first time as a nine-year-old on holiday in Turkmenistan. "After I was born I first saw my mother and father and then our horses," he says with a laugh.
"My parents had a big farm and there were the horses of my father, my uncle and my grandad. I went to the races as a child; horses are my big passion. I know a lot about them and I bought my first horse at the age of 17." The more successful he became as a football player, the more horses he owned. His parents, his sister, cousins, his nephew and his best friend received horses as presents.
In races back home, the family have won prize money of up to €25,000. A large amount of money in Iran but the big money is in racing in Australia. If it all comes to an end with football then Azmoun will want to start Down Under and win races there too. Horses come first for him. "Then I'll stop with football, I don't want to be a coach or manager."
The Werkself player has already demonstrated he can quickly switch focus from one passion to another. In Gonbad-e Kavus, Azmoun's birthplace in the north of Iran, the route to top European football was an extremely rocky one and not just because of the great distance and the local climate. When the football career of the then 14-year-old turned from a dream into a real chance in spite of the difficult circumstances, and he was on the verge of his debut in the Iranian second division, he was already playing for the Iran U15 volleyball team.
Another intriguing family tradition that connects almost all the relatives. Mother, uncle and cousin: all former volleyball internationals; his father: Asian champion and "for a long time the best volleyball player in Asia." That Azmoun finally opted for football instead of following in the footsteps of his parents did not affect peace in the family. "I was a really good volleyball player but everybody here advised me to opt for football. And when I was top scorer in an international tournament and the offer came from Russia then the route was clear. "Now there's only volleyball on the beach on family holidays."
Sardar Azmoun joined Leverkusen from Zenit St Petersburg at the end of January. The fact he made the move to the Werkself in the winter and not in the summer of 2022 as originally planned proved to be a big hit for both parties in spite of some initial teething troubles. After an injury lay-off, he scored his first goal for Bayer 04 against SpVgg Greuther Fürth and he made a contribution to achieving third place in the closing stages of the season.
"I was very frustrated after the Köln game. I saw what that match means to the club and the fans and I'll do everything I can to win those games next season," said the Iran international about the derby defeat. He wants to get on the front foot in the new season: "Everybody's been very nice to me here. We have great fun within the squad including most recently in Mexico. Now I want to give something back and help. In defence, in attack, for the coach – I have to be everywhere for everybody. I will be able to play much better next season. I hope I get off to a really good start next term."
The move ahead of schedule has been a great advantage ahead of the new season in terms of knowing the club, league and teammates. Another was leaving Russia before the outbreak of the war. The events in Ukraine are depressing for the 27-year-old: "I always felt really good in Russia and the people were always good to me. I never believed it would happen. But I'm not a politician and I don't want to say a lot about the war. But as a human being I obviously say: There shouldn't be any wars in this world."
He is the vice-captain and third highest goalscorer in the history of the national team: Sardar Azmoun is a superstar in Iran. That is not only shown by his over 4.6 million followers on Instagram where he posts photos of his matches and horses. In addition, he is the big hope for this year's World Cup. Iran – with the former Bundesliga player Vahid Hashemian as assistant coach – play the USA, England and Wales. An interesting but possibly politically sensitive group.
The 27-year-old dismisses that. "We respect all players wherever they come from. There are no problems between us and our primary aim is to play football. We should leave politics to the politicians. We are all united by the ambition of at least going through to the next round and the dream of winning the World Cup."
The fact his parents came to Iran from Turkmenistan does not change his allegiance – Iran is his home country. "There are a lot of Turkmen in the north-east of Iran. There's a great relationship with each other, we are of Turkmen extraction but proud to be Iranians." But Azmoun is not only famous in Iran and Russia. The many exiled Iranians ensure worldwide that he is recognised almost everywhere – including here in the Rhineland.
"Iranians love football and are very passionate. At every home game I see a lot of Iranian flags and am often approached in and around Leverkusen. I'm happy about that and everybody is always very friendly. Just with visits home I'd sometimes like to have more time for my family and my horses."
In contrast to his departure from volleyball, leaving his family and friends was not so easy when he became the youngest Iranian ever to move abroad on his 18th birthday on 1 January 2013. His destination was the second team at Rubin Kazan – and his aim was also to become the first Iranian player in Russia's top flight. But records are rarely achieved at a canter. And Azmoun had to accept that language, climate and expectations made it difficult far away from home. His dream of a football career briefly had a reality check.
"I was depressed," he says nine and a half years later as he recalls his first months after arriving on his new stage. "It was very difficult as my parents, my friends and also my horses were a long way away. I was alone." However, he proved to his family, club management and, above all, himself that he is an athlete blessed not just with a special talent but also great ambition. Azmoun battled his way through.
"I'm Iranian, I'm not scared," he said to himself back then as he does today in difficult situations. His self-belief quickly paid off. He became a star – far beyond the borders of his old and new home. And quicker than unexpected: He made his first team debut for Kazan in the second half of 2013.
He joined FK Rostov in 2015 to complete the journey he started as a young boy: From the sand pitch to the Champions League – Azmoun's eyes light up when he thinks back to the first games in Europe's premier club competition. In spite of four league titles, two domestic cups, being top goalscorer (2020) and voted the Player of the Year in Russia (2021) the great moments in the Champions League are amongst his favourite memories in his career to date.
In his first Champions League season in 2016 – 17, he scored in the 2-1 defeat at Atletico Madrid and in the legendary 3-2 win for Rostov against FC Bayern. In his return to the competition in 2019 he followed up – now in a Zenit St Petersburg shirt – with goals against Lyon (1-1) and Benfica (3-1). Last season he scored a goal apiece against the heavyweights Juventus (2-4) and Chelsea (3-3). With six goals in the Champions League, he is – again – the most prolific goalscorer in Iranian history.
Now he is back in his favourite competition. He reacted with suitable emotion after achieving qualification for next season's competition on matchday 33. "The Champions League is the greatest. We definitely wanted to qualify and we were ready to get our reward for an impressive season at Hoffenheim." He does not regret a press conference where he said with a smile on his face that his target was to win the competition with the Werkself. Azmoun believes in himself, the coaching staff, the Bayer 04 team – and, above all, on the fundamental principles of competition.
Whether it's on the back of a horse, playing the UNO card game or in the Champions League – for him, competition always offers the chance to win: "I always have big dreams. Anything is possible with these young and talented players. That's football and I've experienced it again and again: At Rostov we beat Bayern. Villarreal reached the semi-finals. Why can't we? Particularly as Leverkusen showed 20 years ago what can be achieved as an underdog and what this club is capable of. It's important to have ambitious targets. Therefore, not just my anticipation is very big but also my hopes."
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