Almost 3,000 miles away from Britain, a vast city lays engulfed by the snow-capped Alborz Mountains. Home to one of football’s fiercest rivalries, Tehran is widely headlined as a city embroiled in debates over nuclear armament and terrorism. Liberal values are denounced, and alcohol is illegal. The nightclubbing section of the Lonely Planet guidebook reads as just two words; ‘Dream on.’ But beyond all of the diplomatic issues, there is something that matters much, much more to Iranian citizens. Football.
The Persian League is host to eighteen clubs, but sixteen of them hide in the shadows. Only two draw emphatic media attention, their support base extending not just among the cities fifteen million inhabitants, but worldwide. If you are a football fan in Iran, it is almost given that you support Persepolis or Esteghal. Cast your mind back to 1968. Martin Luther King was assassinated. The Vietnam War was ongoing. Yet amidst all of the political drama, a heated feud was about to unfold…
Taj FC, who later became known as Esteghal, had a very public rivalry with Shahin FC, who in turn had strong associations with Persepolis. So when Shahin folded due to poor relations with Iran’s governing body, it only seemed right to the Esteghal followers to transfer their battle for greatness with a club they hated – and hated with a passion. Perhaps the major reason for their hatred was their difference in morals and opinions. Persepolis was primarily viewed as a working-class club, whereas Esteghal were supported by the upper class of the Iranian society. The working-class envied the ‘posh’, hence the upper-class’ hatred for the ‘commoners’.
As their feelings became mutual, and the rivalry grew in stature, the nature of the matches became tenser on the eye. Occasionally, rubbish was hurled and seats ripped out, with fans keen to signal their vented anger to the opposition. But that was only occasionally. On the other hand, fights and pitch invasions consistently occur, as well as the destruction of public property. Tehran is not a good place to go on holiday on the day of the Sorkhabi derby.
Tickets do not go on sale until 5:30 in the morning. By 10:00, it’s a 95,000 sell-out, making it one of the most significant derbies’ in the world, let alone Asia. Ever since 1995, government big-wigs have stopped Iranian officials from taking centre stage to stop both supporters’ and players’ suspicions of bias and match-rigging. Until this year, that is. When it was announced that Mohsen Torky would officiate the crucial encounter, a quote from a Persepolis publication said that ‘he better have locked his sister up somewhere safe.’ Don’t take this lightly, though.
The ugliest notable occasion between the two sides took place in late December, 2000. Sensitive enough after Mehdi Hasheminasab had swapped Persepolis for Esteghal in pre-season, half of the ground was incensed when the diminutive midfielder put Esteghal 2-1 up with the four minutes left. But wild celebrations endued when Ali Karimi equalised in injury time, until, after constant insultations, Parviz Broumand and Payan Rafat did their most convincing Lennox Lewis impressions, leaving Rafat sporting a black eye. A mass brawl ensued and later, the clubs’ reputations’ were tarnished further when hoards of hooligans went on the rampage. No less than 250 buses and shops were destroyed, whilst six players and sixty fans were arrested for their behaviour.
Statistics-wise, Ali Parvin is seen as a ‘legend’ by Persepolis fans for his forty-two notable performances in the clashes, as is Safar Iranpak for his crucial seven goals. But despite the players’ undisputed talent and sheer determination, it is the fans who usually take centre stage. Ask an Iranian whether they would rather stay at home, or watch ‘the derby’. I’m sure you could guess their response.