Hemati Hopeful To Land In CPL: ‘Being Away Takes Its Toll’
Four years after heading overseas to kickstart a professional playing career that saw him feature in an AFC Champions League Final and play for clubs in both Asia and Europe, Adam Hemati has his sights locked back on Canada.
The Canadian-Iranian midfielder made 23 appearances for top flight teams in both Iran and Azerbaijan last year, with Hemati now revealing that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the 26-year-old’s priority to a return back to Canada in order to spend time with his family.
He’s had quite a journey in his professional career so far, experiencing both an AFC Champions League Final and Europa League action during his time abroad, with 2020 falling under the category of what one could describe as a ‘breakout year’ in terms of game time – though what will ultimately follow it remains to be seen.
Hemati’s time in Asia started rather unexpectedly though a family connection: his grandfather is a popular Iranian actor named Saeed Rad, who also happens to be a prominent Persepolis FC fan. When Hemati visited Iran for the first time in 2017, Rad brought his grandson along during a personal visit with the top flight Iranian team.
During the visit, Persepolis head coach Branko Ivankovic invited Hemati to join the squad for a recovery training session set to take place the following day. It was an informal invitation, and while Hemati believes the invite was a token of appreciation for his grandfather, he was happy to take the opportunity. The proverbial ball got rolling from there:
I don’t think he expected me to be a serious soccer player, but rather he invited me to kick the ball around. I did the recovery session, and we finished with a small-sided game where I scored two goals. He asked me to come again the next day.Adam Hemati
Hemati didn’t think he was undergoing an actual trial process, but still trained with the team several times throughout the week. Before he flew back to Canada, however, the club told him they’d like to offer him a contract as they were looking to bring in a U-23 player. After returning home and briefly stewing things over, Hemati departed from his university education at Ryerson and flew back to Iran to sign with the club.
The youngster found himself in a squad where the majority of players were internationals, with Hemati going largely unutilized in 2017. The following year saw the club undergo a massive injury crisis, vaulting Hemati into the lineup and seeing him score his first professional goal via a scorching matchwinner against Sepidrood SC.
With the club in the running for a title win and the AFC Champions League – on top of already having won the domestic cup and the Super Cup – Adam found himself in the matchday squad at a pivotal point in the campaign. He helped the side to a 1-0 Champions League semi-final win over Al-Sadd SC, which saw him share the pitch with the likes of Xavi and Gabi. While the club lost out in the two-legged final against the Kashima Antlers (where Hemati played in front of a record-setting home crowd), his club still lifted the domestic title at the end of year. Hemati describes it as, arguably, the best year of his life.
It was a very interesting time in my career and I’m thankful I got to be a part of the history, and to play in those big games with players like Xavi and to play a Champions League Final in front of 100,000 people in that stadium is something I’ll never forget. I’m extremely thankful for it, and when I think back in that they pushed me even more to continue in my career and see what else I can achieve.Adam Hemati
After Hemati had finally broken into the team, he tore his meniscus and underwent knee surgery during the winter break in January. The recovery took longer than expected, and by the time he was fit to crack the eighteen again the season was just about over.
The year had finished, and we had accomplished so much: we made it to the Champions League Final, we won the league, we won the cup, we won the Supercup, we won everything – it was a great year, I just didn’t get back on the field that half-season after the surgery.Adam Hemati
With head coach Ivankovic departing ahead of the 2019-2020 campaign, Hemati found his chances of game time decreasing despite what he says was a positive relationship with the club’s new gaffer.
Having had a taste of high level game time, Hemati began searching for a new club that could offer him a chance carve out more top flight minutes. That led him to a mid-season swap with Iranian first division side Pars Jonoubi Jam, where he went on to make ten appearances at the tail end of the season.
I took the offer that I thought would fit me best, because the coach at the next club had worked very closely with Bronko when he coached with the national team. He was his assistant at the national team level. He had watched my games and knew my quality from Bronko, so he offered for me to come play with him.Adam Hemati
Hemati started the season filling in at right-back after both of his new club’s right-sided defenders suffered injuries just two weeks apart after the closure of the transfer window, which left the club without anyone in the position. Since Hemati was fit and was one of the club’s speedier players, he adopted to the role despite being a primarily attacking player.
While Pars had a record of two wins, four draws, and four losses during his appearances with the club, the side found itself relegated at the end of the season. With his options open, Hemati felt he had accrued plenty of experience in Asian football, and turned his eyes to Europe.
I played there for the half-season, I got to play in multiple decisions and tried my best to help the club. At the end of the season I felt like I had experienced everything there was to experience in Iran. I had won everything that there was to win. I experienced the quarter-final, semi-final, and final in the Champions League. I felt like I had seen it all in Asia, and felt like I needed a new start so I moved to Europe in Azerbaijan.Adam Hemati
Hemati landed with Azerbaijan Premier League side Sumgayit, where he made twelve league appearances and saw action in a Europa League match against North Macedanian side Shkendija Tetovo. He featured on a relatively young team as a right-sided wing-back in a 3-5-2, which was more defensive than he would have liked. Ultimately, he says he’ll play wherever the coach needs him to be.
All-told, he found himself enjoying the new challenge in Azerbaijan, even featuring in a match against former York United striker Rodrigo Gattas‘ team, Gabala FK – though the Chilean striker wasn’t called from the bench.
When you get to feel players at that high level, how strong they are, how fast they are, how fast the game moves, you realize it’s ‘the level’. That was just Europa League, every league gets higher. The Champions League, when I played with Xavi and Gabi, they’re just that ‘next level’ and they see things players don’t see. You get to experience it and fine-tune your game to aspire to be better and reach that higher level.Adam Hemati
While things were going well overseas, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted his family back home, forcing Hemati to evaluate the value of playing abroad versus being at home with his loved ones. At the end of the day, the 26-year-old midfielder wants to be with his family, and so now hopes to sign on with a Canadian Premier League club.
Hemati, who describes a tight-knit relationship with his parents, also notes that playing overseas hasn’t been easy even aside from the pandemic: the drastic time zone differences make communication difficult, and he has only gotten to see his parents in short visits over the last four years. In fact, his father still has yet to see him play in-person.
Without my family, I wouldn’t have had the chance to play professional football. You need that backbone and your parents to be behind you so you can play football. When my family members all gathered around when I came home for the half-season, they asked me to stay home and re-evaluate my situation and see if it was possible to play closer to home to be closer to my family and loved ones while doing what I love to do as well.Adam Hemati
The last four years weren’t the only time that Hemati has been apart from his family to pursue a professional opportunity, with Adam having trained with the Nice reserve team when he was 19. While he believes that his time there shaped his professionalism at a young age, it wasn’t an easy experience for the teenager at the time, and he ultimately returned to Canada to pursue a university education with Ryerson instead.
It takes a toll on you, being away. Football is one of the most important things in my life, but when you look back and say ‘I played football, but at what cost? If I have to be away from my family throughout my whole career, is it worth it?’ That’s a question everyone has to answer for themselves. I’ve done it for four years now, and I’m thankful that Canada has a league that allows Canadians like myself who want to come back and be closer to home, to do so. We’ll see where it goes.Adam Hemati
While the midfielder expressed some reservations about the the Canadian Premier League’s average salary in an interview with Thomas Nef after the inaugural season ended, he says that he’s heard a lot of positive feedback from players around the league and likes what he’s seen from The Island Games highlights, too.
Looking into the CPL and doing my homework, talking to more guys about it, I’ve seen that it is developing and they do care about the league. I find that’s very important, that the people above care about the league and want the best for it. As a player, that’s all you want to hear, that they want the league to grow and they want to bring the best players and coaching staff back, they want to make it develop, and for me to be a part of that would be great.Adam Hemati
Now that Hemati has completed a breakout calendar year in terms of accumulating game time in both Asia and Europe, it’d be easy to see a Canadian Premier League side take interest in the attacking midfielder. While he’s played on the right side of the flank and even performed some defensive duties, the two-footed attacking midfielder actually prefers to play out on the left, which offers oft-priceless versatility for clubs working with a 23-man roster.
Wherever he lands, Hemati is simply hungry to keep his minutes on the pitch ticking:
My appetite for football grew this year because I was playing constantly, competing every week, and I like to compete and show that I’m a certain level: this is who I am, this is how hard I work, and on game day I get to show that. In Europe I felt like my appetite for playing and competing grew ten times more just by playing regularly every single week on very nice fields with a great, young team.Adam Hemati
Having already landed back home in Toronto, Hemati is hoping that domestic football with home markets can mean seeing his family more frequently. That being said, he disclosed that there have been some communications with clubs back overseas. That’s not the free agent footballer’s priority right now, though.
Since my family wanted me to come home, I put that on pause to hear back from some of the clubs that I’ve been talking to closer to home. If things don’t work out, I’ll sit down with my family and discuss that further. Right now, I can’t really saying anything. I’m hoping to move forward with clubs closer to home.Adam Hemati
Another big part of his desire to ply his trade in the CPL is the national team. With head coach John Herdman recently calling up FC Edmonton’s Amer Didic and Pacific FC’s Marco Bustos to a national team camp, it’s clear that the Canadian national team is closely watching the domestic league, too.
Years ago while he was still in Iran, Hemati once received a call-up from Octavio Zambrano, but had to decline it due to personal reasons. Now, he’s eager to get a second chance at the national team setup:
As a player, it’s something that you want to achieve. Every professional player in the world wants to play for their country, and if you don’t, that’s a problem of motivation or desire. Everyone wants to play for the national team. Now that I’m coming home, I know that the national team looks at and respect the CPL because they’ve called up a few players. Now I’m thinking, if that’s how you guys want it, no problem. I’ve got to come in and do the necessary things game-to-game to show that I have the level, and now you guys will be watching. I’m not yet satisfied. I don’t care that I’ve played Champions League Final, or semi-final, or beat Xavi, or played Europa League. I don’t care. My target is to play for my country. I’d love to play for Canada.Adam Hemati
Hemati is far from the only domestic athlete who sees the Canadian Premier League as a means to reach those national team heights, with new FC Edmonton midfielder Shamit Shome saying consistent CPL performances can open doors at the national team level.
With the rising profile of the Canadian Premier League, increasing numbers of Canadians who were playing abroad are openly expressing interest in the league. Free agents like Jeff Addai and Drew Beckie recently spoke on the subject, while roster turnover following The Island Games could see more domestic intra-league moves on the horizon, too.
Hemati’s agency, Eikon Sports Group, currently represents players in at least four CPL clubs. With plenty of roster spots still available from coast-to-coast, it’s just about finding the right fit at the right time. The former Persepolis man is ready to prove himself once again.
Now that I’m coming home and hopefully things work out, I see that light at the end of the tunnel and I’ve got to get to it. This is definitely not me relaxing, it’s me trying to accelerate through even faster to prove that I have what it takes, and I always had it. Maybe I was overlooked, and that’s okay. I just have to do it again. That’s football, you’re only as good as your last game. You just have to keep working.Adam Hemati
While it remains to be seen where Adam Hemati ultimately lands next, his playing career will be an interesting one to follow.
The Canadian Premier League recently announced that its third season will tentatively begin in late May, with officials hoping that health and safety regulations at that time will allow for home markets from coast-to-coast.
Header Image Photo Credit: Meghdad Madadi