Shayesteh: Afghanistan have nothing to lose
For so long, David Beckham has been a source of inspiration to the game's aspiring youth the world over. But the former England captain may be unaware just how much his story has touched some of football's more unheralded players such as fellow free-kick aficionado Faysal Shayesteh.
The 24-year-old Afghani international has raised more than a few eyebrows during recent performances thanks to his sophisticated demeanour on the ball. Most notably, he left spectators open-mouthed when he scored from 50 yards out against Turkmenistan in last year's AFC Challenge Cup - a goal reminiscent of Beckham's famous strike against Wimbledon that brought the young midfielder worldwide recognition in 1996.
"That goal was a bit lucky," the modest midfielder said, describing his own long-range effort to FIFA.com. "Their goalkeeper was red-carded so they had to play with a makeshift keeper. Because of that I decided try my luck directly on goal and I made it!
"Every player has a special talent that he was born with. For me, it feels special each time I strike the ball. I focus on free-kicks after everyday's training session, usually with a wall to improve my technique. Beckham did this with both Manchester United and Real Madrid."
Japan test in Tehran
The creative Afghan featured prominently as his nation made history by sealing their maiden FIFA World Cup™ qualifying victory against Cambodia, but their next encounter is a completely different challenge. They take on Japan on Tuesday in Tehran, Iran for their third Russia 2018 qualifier and Shayesteh is relishing the chance to rub shoulders with the four-time Asian champions.
"If you had told me a few years ago that we would play a World Cup qualifier against players like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, I definitely wouldn't have believed you,” he said. “I am really looking forward to this game. All eyes will be on them and we have nothing to lose. It may be unrealistic for us to think about victory, but crazy things can happen in football."
Born in Afghanistan, Shayesteh left for the Netherlands with his family when he was just a baby. He cut his teeth in FC Twente's youth academy before moving to Bulgaria to join FC Etar in 2013. His talents did not go unnoticed back in Asia though, as he was scooped up by Thailand's Songkhla United last year.
"I learned a lot about European football with FC Etar," he reflected. "But I am happy to have come to Thailand. Thai football has been developing quickly in recent years and it provides me with a good setting to improve."
Shayesteh realised his childhood dream of representing his country when he made his international debut in a friendly against Kyrgyzstan in 2014. Although he was deployed at left-back that day, it did not take him too long to showcase his talents as a midfield maestro. He already has four assists in his nation's colours to go along with his three goals – two of which came from free-kicks.
Absentees in Afghanistan's side have forced something of a reshuffle though, with Shayesteh now finding himself leading the line for his country. "My coach Slaven Skeledzic knows that I am a No10 who operates behind the strikers, a playmaker," he explained. "But unfortunately our striker Milad Salem is injured so I am playing as a forward. I have a free role, though, so I don't have problems with it. I just do what is the best for the team."
Even with this set-back, Shayesteh is keen on lifting his individual performances to a new level and moving beyond just raised eyebrows in the stands, hoping one day to emulate his idol Beckham on even a larger stage.
"Set-pieces are always my strength but I want to show more of what I'm capable of," he insisted, "I want people to see what I can really do."
With Afghanistan's next World Cup qualifying test lined up for Tuesday, the world will be waiting to see if Shayesteh can summon some magic against the Samurai Blue, just like Beckham managed to do for the Three Lions on numerous occasions.