Football in Iran

Well, how about a timely ‘football in Iran’ post while the World Cup has so many millions of football lovers around the world glued to their screens?

Let me start with a disclaimer; I know almost nothing about professional football (called soccer, where I come from), but know enough to be able to size up the teams on the pitch for quality. Beyond that, I can eat ice-cream and cheese doodles (although not always in that order) to match the most ardent soccer fan.

And so, I recently went to a soccer match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, located in the southwest corner of the city. En route to the game, you just know who is going to the match; cars festooned with club colours start aggregating on the major feeder roads. Flags from windows and, equally, football fans hanging precariously from windows waving banners. I even saw a little boy standing in the front seat of the car, hanging out of the sunroof (not an uncommon sight in Iran) waving his team beach towel. For this game I had chosen to attend, all bunting was blue.

Pic: Azadi Stadium

With only what turned out to be 18,000 fans turning up to this 85,000-seater stadium – which for one game against Australia somehow is recorded to have seated 125,000 (that must have been COSY!) – my first observations were, in this order, surprise at the long queues of cars to get into the carpark, the ineffectiveness of the authorities to effectively guide parking, the vigour with which drivers sought to offend the few officers trying to ‘herd cats’, and the venom of those officers when they saw their game-plan being challenged by drivers left, right and centre.

Seeing a traffic officer kick one vehicle, as just one example, a couple of things had started already to be evident.

1) The traffic officers seriously need some decent training, or personality transplants, and

2) the crowd was riled up waaaaaaay before kickoff.

Anyway, Iran’s National Pro League comprises some 16 teams and, with the national side getting to fly to Brazil this year, you could expect the league is of some quality. Albeit not World Cup winning, one presumes.

According to Wiki, the clubs, their home towns, home stadia, and their home stadia capacities, go something like this:

Current clubs in the Iran Pro league (2014–15)

Team City Venue Capacity
Esteghlal Tehran Azadi 84,412
Esteghlal Khuzestan Ahvaz Takhti Ahvaz 30,000
Foolad Ahvaz Ghadir 50,199
Gostaresh Tabriz Gostaresh Foolad 12,000
Malavan Anzali Takhti Anzali 8,000
Naft Masjed Soleyman Masjed Soleyman Behnam Mohammadi 30,000
Naft Tehran Tehran Dastgerdi 8,250
Padideh Mashhad Samen 30,000
Paykan Qods Shahre Qods 25,000
Perspolis Tehran Azadi 84,412
Saba Qom Qom Yadegar Emam 10,610
Saipa Karaj Enghelab Karaj 30,000
Sepahan Esfahan Foolad Shahr 31,439
Sorinet Tehran Takhti Tehran 12,922
Tractor Sazi Tabriz Sahand 75,000
Zob Ahan Esfahan Foolad Shahr 31,439

You should note that, over time, most of the seasons have been won by either Esteghlal or Sepahan. The game I attended some weeks back was Esteghlal FC (home town Tehran and home ground Azadi Stadium), versus NAFT Tehran.

My second set of observations is about the queuing to get into the stadium. After parking, you make your way on foot towards the stadium and the ticket offices. The crowd was, let’s just say, a little punchy. All were young men, all wearing or waving blue, and the feeling was not really a very friendly one, I have to say. You got the feeling, just in the poor excuses for queues that existed at the ticket gates, that turning out to football games is, besides driving, the only emotional outlet for this crowd in Iran.

The queues were long and massively disorganised. Tempers were frayed. And ignorance of the others around you was the rule. It seemed like the best strategy for queuing (if you ever happen to go) is join any queue from the side, as close to the front as possible. And then just quickly turn your back on anyone behind who might protest. That seems to be the way.

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Pic: A local form of queuing

And, of course, NO WOMEN. Football is, it seems, not for the eyes of ladies. Girls are allowed, up to the age of 7. But, in hindsight, anyone kept away from the live innards of the spectacle are really not missing out. Having said that, that women don’t have the right to choose to go or not to go is, of course, the patriarchal tragedy.

And so, observations of patriarchy behind us, into the stadium we go. An enormous concrete double-decker bowl stadium, with decaying plastic seating, Azadi Stadium is divided into heavily-fenced sections. A glass media bay, and presumably the odd VIP bay, sit high atop the western side of the stadium. This enormous stadium – apparently the world’s third largest soccer stadium and voted the most intimidating stadium in Asia – was built in 1971 for the 1974 Asian Games. Like most constructions in Tehran, it really has seen better days and is, in large part, a ‘renovator’s dream’. I am not sure it has seen any renovation at all, or maintenance for that matter, since 1974.

It must be mightily impressive when filled to its capacity, and throbbing from chants and game songs of really pretty avid Iranian football fans. But it is a shabby stadium with, I think, its headiest days behind it. It needs more than a touch of paint. The fans, all blue, squeezed into mainly two sections at the southern end behind the goal, and one upper deck on halfway, making the remainder of the stadium feel cold and dead even in the late afternoon sun.

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Pic: View to the West

On the field are, surprise, surprise, two teams. One sporting bright yellow, the other a royal blue and white strip. The teams are NAFT Tehran FC, and Esteghlal FC.

NAFT cuts something of a strange figure; a team that is effectively created by and still owned by the Iranian National Oil Company without much of a fan base it seems (their home-ground only has a capacity of around 8000 people), they presumably have some cash but are relatively ‘homeless’. In bright yellow ‘away’ strip, the team certainly paraded well. In terms of the play, one might say they had a better ‘average’ than the Esteghlal team. NAFT had one standout player, a tall and somehow near-blonde guy named Norouzi. Me and my co-obervers were convinced for most of the game we was a German or a Swede, possibly we had seen him in Vikings Season 2, and in any event he was clearly a cut above the rest of his team. But of course from 150 metres up in the stadium, it is not clear that we were seeing him in enough detail to make out his ethnic origins. To NAFT’s credit, despite having almost no supporter base, they did not seem to have a bad player on the field.

Nafttehran.gif

Pic: NAFT Badge

Esteghlal FC, in their bright blue ‘home’ strip, on the other hand, have a huge following but never for a second looked like the favourites. In my humble amateurish ignorant-of-soccer way, I would assess Esteghlal that day had 2-3 players worthy of the corner office, 3-4 players that might hang around the cubicles where the ‘average’ sign hangs, and the rest languishing in the below-average or just plain awful heating pipe trunk room. Two of those heating pipe trunk room players, who shall remain numberless, could, in a fair competition, have been dispossessed by my 2-year old daughter. Mind you, she is bloody good for her age. 🙂

Esteghlal FC.svg

Pic: Esteghlal Badge

The game can best be described as two teams struggling to define what their ‘average player resting point’ was. It was not a very bad to-and-fro, just not a very inspiring one. The game went back and forth like any football game. One could not say it raged back and forth, however. And depressingly most of the plays of the game ended up in one decent player passing to one less good player, who was quickly dispossessed by a semi-decent opposition player. It is not that I don’t enjoy football. I do, when it is good. 🙂

Overall, Estaghlal certainly had more shots at goal than NAFT, courtesy of their better players being in the attacking half of the field, but the NAFT keeper was mostly up to the task and, frankly, the shots were sufficiently lack-lustre. I might have been able to stop them.

With the on-field action being less than enthralling (this is perhaps why so many stay home and just watch it on TV), the goings-on off the pitch were more interesting. Of the entire stadium, only two sections were really being used to house the fans. Two sections, situated at one end behind a goal, were jam-packed. And ringed by yellow-clad ice-cream sellers and a LOT of black-clad, yellow-vested security guards.

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Pic: The ‘blue’ supporters section

Chants and songs were seemingly orchestrated by a hardcore fan club located near the top of the filled sections. What started out as friendly chants, it felt, were a little more…. um…. let’s say ‘bitter’ after a time. I could have sworn by the time the crowd started chanting “attack” to their beloved Esteghlal team, what they really meant to say was “may you and your families suffer the pox when you quit the pitch”.

The home crowd turned on Esteghlal with alacrity, just as the game failed to.

By the 90-minute mark (who knew it could go on so long!?), the game was an awe-sapping 0-0.

And so, into overtime. I guess it is injury time? A soccer fan reader will almost certainly school me on this. Anyways, with barely a single supporter in the stands, and in overtime, NAFT snatched a victory against Esteghlal, scoring the only goal of the encounter. NAFT went 1 up at the hands (read: foot) of the remarkably Scandinavian-looking Reza Norouzi. If I had bothered to do some research before going, I would have found this particular NAFT player, dubbed the ‘blue killer’ for his ability to score uncannily against Esteghlal, is a national player (so probably in Brazil as this goes to press), MVP of the league or something similar in 2010, and a top goal-scorer for the league. And at 190cm tall, that is why we thought we’d seen him in Vikings.

The completely blue Esteghlal crowd was, well, disappointed. No, that does not quite capture the mood. More….ummm….homicidal. Yes, that’s it. The blue fans, by the time the final hooter sounded, wanted blood from some of their blue players.

The air was so thick with distaste at the performance of Esteghlal, one blue player at the end of the game , so sick of being booed and, presumably, having rude things said in his direction, cunningly averted the player tunnel and sought to leap into the stands. One presumes his plan was to fight at least some of the 18,000 supporters-turned-assassins before he was de-limbed. Luckily for him, the security keeping the blue fans at bay also stopped his advance to his own death.

Fighting was, for a small crowd, more common than I would have imagined. Most of the fighting seemed, however, to be between fans and guards. Even two soldiers, definitely high on something, and in uniform, got punchy in our enclosure and were soon booted out by security guards after copping a smack or two from incensed members of the home crowd.

And so, for the generally disinterested observer, there were large packs of cheese doodles available, ice-cream, and as much bottled water as you can drink. Not a dry game by any standard. And overall a good day out for more of a sociocultural experience than a footballing one.

Considering the punchy start to the outing in the feisty queues, and a dull game that ending almost in the lynching of a home player or two, it ended serenely. The sun setting, a little snow still shining with twilight glow on the background Alborz Mountains, the crowd filtered away into the night with a whoop and a yell, but no more fighting.

And the 18,000-strong crowd were very, very quickly soaked up by the anonymity that comes from a 16-million person city.

 

 

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