In the 14th round of the 2017-18 A-League season, a disappointing crowd of only 5,207 had filed into AAMI Park to watch Melbourne City take on a floundering Wellington Phoenix.
Trailing 1-0 thanks to a 43rd-minute Roy Krishna strike, City head coach Warren Joyce turned to his bench early in the second half, dragging defender Manny Muscat in the 53rd minute and introducing Daniel Arzani, who had celebrated his 19th birthday only two days prior.
The rest is history. Arzani’s inspired second half appearance – in which he set up both of Ross McCormack’s goals as City stormed home to record a 2-1 victory – kickstarted a 15-game stretch in which the youngster became the talk of Australian football.
In that run, Arzani has played an integral role in driving City to a club-record third-placed finish, won the 17-18 A-League Young Player of the Year award and last week earned a spot in Bert van Marwijk’s extended squad ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Arzani has earned many plaudits for his audacious willingness to back himself against his defender (and the defender after that and the defender after that) and inclination to take risks going forward, while also attracting numerous detractors that hold a disdain for his frequent trips to the turf and perceived arrogance in which the young phenom conducts himself with.
“I think it’s the kind of player I am,” Arzani told dailyfooballshow.com earlier this year.
“I like to dribble people, I like to go at people and I think a lot of the time defenders just hack me down.
“It’s something I’ve come to terms with a long time ago when I started playing and it’s just part of the game I guess.”
This cocksure belief in his superiority over his adversary is one of the most visibly striking parts of Arzani’s game, and it is a feature that has ostensibly been readily apparent since his days as a youth player.
“He just had a confidence, that confidence and I’d say a good arrogance of wanting the ball, taking players on, combining well with players around him,” recollected Socceroos legend Tony Vidmar, who brought Arzani into the national youth setup when he was head of the now-closed FFA Centre of Excellence at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra.
“We would have seen Daniel previously at the national youth championships in Coffs Harbour, that would have been I think 2013, maybe 2014.
“We decided at that point that we’d bring him into the full time program in Canberra.
“He had that good understanding of combination play, so there were many traits of his game that we saw that we didn’t see that much with other players.
“He just had a different footballing pedigree.”
Arzani’s innate, free-spirited and joyful style of play has its roots not in countless hours spent on the training ground as part of a tailor-made coaching regime, but instead on the streets of Khorramabad, in Iran’s west, where the Iranian-born Arzani recalls a rearing defined by a love of the world game.
“I was crazy about football,” Arzani reminisced.
“Up until the age of seven in Iran we would just play on the streets for hours and hours and hours.
“(When) I came to Australia I would play with my brother’s team. He used to play for a premier league side in Sydney.
“He played under-13s and I used to just go to his training and run around, mess around with the boys and then when we went (back) to Iran we were just playing on the streets every day, which was amazing.”
Arzani and his family ultimately laid down roots in Sydney, initially in the northern suburb of Artarmon before gradually heading eastward towards Little Bay and Maroubra.
“I played for Coogee United, that was the first team I played for, (the) under-10s of Coogee United,” Arzani recalled.
“I played there a year and then straight after that I got into metros, played for Eastern Suburbs under-11s and then I went to the Skillaroos and then the AIS.
“It was a big step for me, getting into the AIS, I was 14 at the time, so young, but it’s what I always wanted to do. I think I’m the only Iranian to ever be there actually.”
Arzani at this point was also drawing the attention of Joe Palatsides, now the head of City’s academy and then working as an assistant in the Melbourne Heart setup.
“We first saw Daniel when he was in the AIS as a 14-year-old,” Palatsides recalled to dailyfootballshow.com.
“We came back and reported back to (then Melbourne Heart Football Director and now PFA Chief Executive) John Didulica that this was a kid that we need to sign.”
Arzani represented Australia seven times at an under-17 level in his time at the AIS.
Vidmar recalls how he and his staff sought to extract the potential from the highly talented but incomplete product they had been delivered.
“We felt that there was so much more in his game that he could eventually bring out,” Vidmar said.
“We felt that there were times when he wasn’t involved in games when he should be. He would only be involved in bits and pieces, so it was trying to get that collective 90 minutes of football in his ability.
“He would at times just switch off. He could switch off for 10 minutes because he knew that at any given time he could create a goal or score a goal with one action. We felt that there wasn’t enough of that consistency.
“That was something we felt that we had to drill into him and create good habits. There was a lot of bad habits that he had at that stage.”
“(Bad habits) attacking-wise, but also off the ball, without the ball defensively.
“It was probably an area that in his younger days wasn’t really focused on, or worked on, so you basically had a clean sheet of paper with him.
“There were parts of his game defensively which Daniel didn’t understand, he wasn’t aware of, and again that’s still an evolution happening now because all of a sudden you’re teaching him the other parts of the game which he hasn’t done before so now it’s all new, he’s crawling again – learning how to defend.”
Arzani’s time at the AIS ended in June 2016, when he surprised many observers of Australian youth football by signing not with Syndey FC, but City.
“When we did sign him, the truth of the matter was that he spent most of his training with the senior team because he was that talented,” Palatsides said.
“Early on he probably didn’t work as hard as what he should have because he probably got away with that all through his junior career; where he’s such a good player going forward that really defensively he didn’t need to work as hard.
“I don’t think there was ever any doubt on the quality that this kid had. I’ve always maintained that he is world class in what he does going forward.
“He could have played for some of the big teams in Europe and he wouldn’t have been out of place as a winger or attacking-mid, there was no doubt he had that quality.
“But when you get into a better environment and a harder environment you need players that can contribute throughout the game, not just when they get the ball.
“But we’ve had him in our academy system and youth team for the last two years, two and a half years now, and we’ve seen him progress along the lines of the player that we wanted him to be.
“Of course, there were areas in his game for senior football, results-driven football, which he had to work on and I think the boss (Joyce) addressed that during the year and he made him work for his spot in the senior team.”
That spot in the senior team has proved an elusive prize for Arzani, who, despite his natural talents, only secured a consistent spot in City’s first XI under Joyce after making only intermittent appearances in the squads of John van’t Schip and Michael Valkanis.
Palatsides recalls the exasperation that Arzani had with his struggles to break into the first team.
“There were times that he was definitely frustrated,” Palatsides said.
“You see Daniel at training and he’s playing against our best players – we’ve got some really quality players and defenders – and you still see the way he glides past.
“He knows that on his day he can do that against anyone, and we know that as well. So, there were times when he wasn’t being selected and there was no doubt he was frustrated as a footballer.
“But he never ever showed discontent at training, he kept trying to do the right thing, kept working hard, kept doing the extras required of him.
“He’s a professional in what he does, he can obviously be a better trainer, like we all can, there’s no limit on where you can put that, but he never ever stopped believing in what he could achieve.”
Vidmar, upon the closure of the FFA COE program at the AIS, reunited with Arzani at City in 2017 when he was named as an assistant to Joyce.
And the 47-year-old, who was capped 76 times for the Socceroos in his playing career, told dailyfootballshow.com that he has definitely seen a growth in Arzani since their time together in Canberra.
“I think what I had seen was someone who really appreciated what he had there (the AIS),” Vidmar said.
“He did take it for granted, I felt that with us he cut corners, he didn’t really do things at 100%.
“But I think that was something that I noticed, was that he would be the first one in the building with the players and then he would be the last one to leave. So, he really changed in that.
“I think a lot of that also had to do with maturity, I think he’s matured as a person, I think that’s something.
“I think when he came to us (At the AIS) he was still that young immature kid who had that freedom of doing whatever he wanted, so I think that maturity has played a big part in him.”
While he has a large bias in making the call, Vidmar believes that this growth, combined with the natural talent that he possesses, shows the young Iranian-Australian he brought to Canberra back in 2014 is now capable of producing for the Socceroos in Russia.
“I think the impact that he’s had, and people can say that he’s only played 15 games, but the impact that he has had in our national competition has been massive,” Vidmar said.
“And I haven’t seen anything like that since I’ve been back in the country in the last 10 years.
“I think he’s one that you take there because, he’s not going to give you a full 90 minutes at that level just yet, he’s still working on that, but he has that impact.
“I think he’s someone that you can look to the bench and throw him in there and you don’t know what you’re going to get at this stage. It maybe doesn’t go great at the start of it, but he’s one that I think he should take.”
For his part, Palatsides agrees.
“Australian football needs a Daniel Arzani – as many Daniel Arzani’s as we can get,” he said.
“Because that’s what’s going to put bums on seats and make them come to games and I’m sure we’ve got a lot of Melbourne City supporters who come just to see what Daniel Arzani is going to perform or do next week. Some magical move that he’s capable of.
“He glided past some of these best defenders in Australia and he really set himself up for a really good year, he ended up getting the A-League young players of the year and then rightfully so into a callup into the extended national team squad.
“We’re very proud of what he’s become, both as a person and as a player. We’ve just loved to watch him grow and get better.
“We’re pretty proud watching Daniel Arzani put on a show.”