In January 2011, Eamon Zayed, the Irish-Libyan forward, had no club. A year later, he scored a hat-trick in front of a 100,000 spectators in Tehran. Who is Eamon Zayed? And how did he end up in Iran?
For centuries Irishmen have emigrated to the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand to find work. The last wave of work related emigration, is a new chapter in the never ending book of Irish exoduses. The same story goes for Irish footballers. With England as their closest neighbour, the League of Ireland has struggled to make an impact. The biggest talent travel over the Irish Sea when they are youngsters, and don’t even return to Ireland to finish their careers, if they are good enough to stay in England. At the same time, few of the promising footballers get the breakthrough they hope for.
According to a survey done by Professional Footballers Association (PFA) in 2008, approximately 50 Irish footballers get youth contracts with British clubs each year. Of those, only 15 % are offered a senior contract. This made the Irish Foreign Department to open a new post in its welfare programme for unemployed Irish citizens living in England, who works directly towards young footballers.
Eamon Zayed was born in Dublin in 1983, by an Irish mother and Libyan father. His first name, Eamon, hold a political significance in Ireland. Eamon de Valera (1882-1975) was one of Ireland’s most prominent republicans, and went later on to become president. Eamon Zayeds career has not been free of politics and teams with political connections, even though he followed the blue print of Irish talent development: youth football in England.
When the senior contract never showed up at Leicester City, Zayed travelled back home to Ireland and got his senior debut for Bray Wanderers in 2002. Zayed went on loan to Crewe Alexandra in 2004, without playing a match, and to the Norwegian side Aalesund in 2005, where he came of the subs bench to play 20 minutes against Molde FK. In 2003, Zayed made his debut for the Irish U-21, and went on to score two goals in seven matches. After Bray Wanderers, Zayed played for Drogheda United (2006-2008), and Sporting Fingal (2009-2010). At this time in his career, Zayed felt ready for new challenges, and with 95 goals in 231 matches, Zayed had proven he was a goal scorer.
2010 went on to become a dramatic year for Zayed. With family connections to North Africa and Libya, he decided to represent the Gadaffi controlled Libyan national side. Muammar Gaddafis son, Al-Said Gadaffi, was president in the Libyan Football Federation and former team captain. Zayeds debut came the same autumn, against Niger. When the season ended in Ireland, Zayed found himself in a cross road type of situation. Should he continue to play in Ireland? Or should he make himself more attractive for the national side by playing club football in North Africa? It didn’t take long before the offers started to turn up.
First out: Al-Ahly Tripoli. Zayed negotiated a contract, but when the deal was about to be closed, the Libyan Football Federation introduces a new rule, which forbade foreign born Libyans under 30 years to play in the Libyan league. You could suspect the rule was invented to block Zayeds transfer…
Next club in line was Haras El-Hodood from Alexandria in Egypt. A club with close connections to the Mubarak regime. One of the clubs board members was Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who served as Minister of Defense under the Mubarak led government. The negotiations fell through shortly before the Egyptian revolution started, and Zayed said he was happy that none of these deals went through in the end. Today, Tantawi is the leader of the unpopular Military Council which controls Egypt, and the whole football world were shocked to see the riots that started during a league match between Al-Ahly and Al-Masry, and ended with over 70 people losing their lives.
In January 2011 Zayed had no employee, a situation he shared with many other Irishmen. Irish football club normally offer a one-year contract at the time, which brings huge uncertainties for many footballers. This made Zayed travel with a team of unemployed footballers to Norway, and the FIFPro tournament for Bosman players. This was the first time players unions in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Ireland, held a winter tournament, where their member could play matches in front of agents and scouts. Zayed impressed, and were shortly after the tournament, given a contract with Derry City. His stay in Derry was hugely successful, with 22 goals in 36 matches, a League of Ireland Cup Trophy, and a Player of the Year Award.
Once again, transfer rumours started to spin. Zayed was linked to English, Scandinavian and Singaporean clubs, but Zayed surprised everyone by signing a six month long contract with the Iranian giant, Persepolis. (Read Omar Almasris insightful article The Surkhabi Derby about Iranian football in general and the derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal). In his debut, Zayed scored a hat trick against Persepolis archrivals Esteghlal, to make it a 3-2 victory. Overnight Zayed became a superstar in Iran. A few days later, Zayed talked about his first match in Iran with Irish Times:
'At the stadium the whole place went mad, I’ve never seen anything like it. And then on the bus afterwards all the players were coming up, hugging and kissing me, telling me I didn’t realise what I’d done. Then, when I got back to the hotel there was a wedding on and the people wanted me to join them as a special guest. An old man offered me $100, he told me how grateful he was and that he wanted to give me a gift. And this being Iran, it wasn’t the drink talking'
Eamon Zayed has since gone on to score two more hat tricks for Persepolis. It is not easy to guess what or where is next for Zayed. Will he sign an extended contract with Persepolis? Or will he jump on his flying carpet and try his luck somewhere else? Or maybe he will end up back in Ireland? One thing is certain, Eamon Zayeds career is one to watch.