Bigger than Nowruz
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
05 Apr 2009 17:41
Sports and politics in Iran.
Fifty years ago, Greco-Roman style wrestling was the favorite sport of Iranians. Over the years, however, football replaced wrestling as the most watched and played sport in Iran. For many, football matches are the most important TV event of the week. For others still, the results of a football match are much more important than, say, who the next president is going to be. In Iran football is more than a sport or passion; it is, quite literally, an obsession. Perhaps you have to be Brazilian to understand.
For me, it all started with the two football clubs: Persepolis and Esteghlal. In school you had to be a fan of one. If you weren't interested, you were left out and picked on. So as is the tradition in my family, I became a Perspolisi, a fan of Persepolis, or one of the Reds. (The Esteghlalis are the Blues.) Almost all of my fights in school were related to football. At every recess, we were divided into two teams, the Reds and the Blues. We played football until we were called back to class. Even when following a fight the headmaster confiscated our football, we played with a stone! It usually took an injury, such as a broken tooth, for our headmaster to be persuaded to return our ball.
The Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs have dominated the Iranian football league for decades. Even when they haven't been league champions, they have been the most followed. These two teams have very large fan bases; in fact, it has been suggested that Persepolis has the largest fan base in all of Asia. Both teams were founded in the pre-revolutionary era to represent the capital Tehran in the national league. Esteghlal used to be called Taj, or crown, but with the revolution all symbols of the monarchy were abandoned and the club was renamed Esteghlal, meaning independence. Persepolis was also changed to Piruzi, meaning victory but, the fans continued to call the club Persepolis -- a rare manifestation of defiance in the Islamic Republic. The clubs play in Azadi stadium, which can hold 100,000 people. It is one of the largest stadiums in the world, and certainly one of the most monumental.
Thousands flock from all corners of the country for the popular Tehran derby, where Persepolis and Esteghlal face-off. The rivalry between these teams is like that of Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Juventus and Inter Milan. Fans are willing to endure just about anything: hours in long queues, camping outside the stadium overnight, enduring unsanitary facilities, among many other inconveniences. I have never watched the derby up-close myself, but each time younger members of my extended family gather at my aunt's to watch the match, it is the greatest family event of the year, even bigger than Nowruz.
In recent years the match has become boring -- suspiciously so. Games end predictably in a draw, as if ordered by authorities. Perhaps they are concerned that the fanatic supporters of the losing team will tear apart not only the stadium, but the whole city. Even when the match ends in a draw, hundreds of buses are vandalized and thousands of seats in the stadium are ripped apart.
As I was growing up, Iranian state television began to broadcast European football matches. It was the safest form of programming, with little or no need for editing or censorship. As a result, my generation avidly followed European football clubs. I favored the Italian club, Juventus, and my brother Bayern Munich. We even became passionate fans of foreign national teams. I have always been a strong follower of Germany's national team, while many in my family are strong fans of either Italy or Brazil.
Our obsession however remains with Iran's national football team. Our greatest source of pride is its success, our greatest despair its loss. I'll never forget the historic match between Iran and Australia in the 1998 World Cup qualifier in Melbourne. I was just 14 then. Iran was down by two goals when Karim Bagheri and Khodad Azizi scored two goals. The tie, plus the previous one all draw in Tehran, meant that we were on our way to the World Cup finals. I was so ecstatic, I couldn't stop jumping up and down for an hour after the match was over. The walls in my room were suddenly filled with posters of the new national heroes. Since then I have rarely missed a national football game, but I have to admit, the games have never been the same.
One match came close in 1998, the World Cup in France. The game was between Iran and the United States, the first ever public encounter between the two after the revolution. Iran won that game and the nation burst out in joy. Millions took to the streets and we celebrated throughout the night, dancing and singing. It was the first time the Islamic Republic had to deal with such crowds in the streets. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but they were outnumbered. We went on celebrating en masse, in definace of a many-year ban on such an act.
Iran managed to make it to the World Cup finals once again after that, in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The deciding game was between Iran and Bahrain. We won and again the streets were filled with young people celebrating the victory. The victory coincided with the Iranian presidential elections, the one where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president. As is custom around elections in Iran, the atmosphere was relaxed and the authorities used the celebrations to show freedom in the country.
The victory over Bahrain had another significance: It was a victory over an Arab team, the very team whose win over Iran in the previous World Cup qualifiers had denied Iran the chance of qualifying, thus sending the Saudis to the final stages. No one has forgotten that the Bahrainis took a victory parade around the stadium holding the flag of Saudi Arabia.
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes back many years. Iranians prefer to lose to South Korea (our other formidable Asian rival) by a six-goal margin than to lose or tie with Saudi Arabia.
Our worst nightmare was realized during these Nowruz holidays when Iran lost to Saudi Arabia at Azadi stadium during the 2010 South African World Cup qualifying games. The loss means that Iran has very little chance of making it to the finals. Worse still, we lost to Saudi Arabia. And we lost in Tehran, before a home audience, with hundreds of thousands of fans watching.
It is a bit like everything else that has gone wrong during the administration of Ahmadinejad: football has not been spared. Some superstitious people blame the defeat on Ahmadinejad's presence in the stadium! Iran was ahead by one goal until he showed up, and then Saudi Arabia scored two goals.
It was not the first time that Iran lost in Ahmadinejad's presence. A few months ago, in the final World Cup match of Greco-Roman wrestling, everything was going well. Iran was ahead in the overall team score and needed only one last victory to become the world champions. Iran's heavyweight champion, Fardin Masoumi, was ahead of his Azerbaijani rival, then Ahmadinejad showed up in the stadium. Masoumi lost the match and Iran lost the title. This is why many blame Ahmadinejad for the failures of Iranians in sports!
To be fair, there may be some basis to this. Sports in Iran are a governmental affair. All of the major sporting clubs are run by the government and the whole thing is very political. Take Persepolis and Esteghlal. They are owned by the Iranian Sport Organization whose head is appointed by the president. The current chief of Iranian sports is a very controversial figure, Mohammad Aliabadi. He had no prior experience in sports or sport management before being appointed to the post. He is also head of the National Olympics Committee, which is banned under the Iranian constitution. His blunders and mismanagement have cost Iran much. In the Beijing Olympics, Iran's performance was one of the worst in recent memory.
Through his insistence, Iranian football hero, Ali Daei, who has a limited coaching background, became the coach of the national football team. On his watch, the national football team, which many argue now possesses more talent than any othr time in its history, is being eliminated in the World Cup qualifying stage. In the past year, FIFA threatened to ban Iran's football federation from international competitions because of the government's intervention in the sport.
I think sports have come to symbolize many of the wrong choices Ahmadinejad has made for managerial posts in his administration over the past four years. Like almost every other sector, sports in Iran are in critical need of reform, reforms that a new president may be better suited to implement.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau