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Iran's Monday Night Football

by KAVEH OMID in Tehran

10 Jul 2011 13:23Comments

An unlikely sports anchor rises to the top and challenges Iran's traditions.

[ dispatch ] Iran's favorite television sports personality talks so fast he frequently winds up tongue-tied. He often leaves his sentences unfinished because he is unable to find the right word. His hands tend to fly in seemingly random directions. He failed the certification test given by the national broadcasting organization not once, but multiple times.

This is skinny, curly-haired Adel Ferdosipour, host of the immensely popular Barnameye Navad, or Program 90, which every Monday night provides an occasion for family and friends to gather, watch, and even participate. The focus is soccer -- or football, as the national obsession is known here. Along with discussions about the action on the field, Ferdosipour's commentary-and-interview show features quite a bit about the politics of the sport in Iran. Despite repeatedly courting controversy, he has kept his show on the air for more than a decade and become one of the country's most trusted public figures.

Ferdosipour started as a sportscaster in 1995, when he was just 21. He had the hoarse voice of a barely pubescent teenager, one that contrasted sharply with the warm tones of Javad Khiabani, at the time Iranians' favorite football announcer. Many wondered how he had ever made it onto the air.

For a while, people even hoped that he would not announce games -- the national team seemed to lose every match he was assigned to call, and he was branded as a bringer of bad luck. Gradually, however, his technical understanding of the game, extensive knowledge about players around the world, and impartiality endeared him to Iranian audiences.

He is so impartial that even the most fanatic supporters of various teams consider his first name, which means "just" in Persian, to be apt. Today, many prefer to hear his voice during important international games as well as the competition between Persepolis and Esteqlal -- Tehran's most prominent Premier League clubs with an intense rivalry that goes back to prerevolutionary times.

Amir, a Manchester United supporter in Tehran, admits that he likes hearing Ferdosipour comment on his team's matches against Liverpool despite the fact that Ferdosipour roots for the latter. "It is only when he yells a Liverpool goal from the bottom of his heart that I remember he is a Liverpool fan, and I can forgive him for that small slip," he says.

But it is Ferdosipour's Program 90 that has many hooked. The program was launched in 1999, emulating a similar television show in Italy. Each week it offers analysis and discussion of football events, with the camera following the conduct of everyone involved in the sport in Iran: government officials, referees, coaches, players, and even fans. His style is to ask a question and keep asking until he receives an answer. The program can go on for hours, at times even until 2 or 3 a.m.

He is a capable host, despite his lack of the verbal skills and physical discipline expected of conventional television announcers. On some occasions, he will even put his pen in his mouth or his head down on his desk in frustration. But he is relentless, sometimes bordering on rude, particularly with government officials in Iran's football federation, pointing to their contradictory statements and unprofessional conduct.

Players and coaches are not immune either. Some such as Ali Daei, the world's all-time leading goal scorer in international matches, refused to appear on his show for years because of Ferdosipour's harsh criticisms and aggressive approach to questioning. Football legend Ali Parvin still refuses to do so. "I like Adel," he says, "but not his Barnameye Navad."

Criticism of his abrasive style has led Ferdosipour to tone down a bit and when Daei finally appeared on Program 90, after he was selected as the coach of Iran's national team in 2008, the conversation was courteous, even as it broached contentious topics.

Ferdosipour challenges football fans as well. He teased supporters of Tabriz's Tractorsazi for claiming that the team is the most popular in Iran and has more fans than Manchester United and Barcelona. Tractorsazi fans in turn accused Ferdosipour of being prejudiced and na-Adel -- unjust. Ferdosipour aired the fans' criticisms on his program and then asked the audience to select their favorite team. Tractorsazi came in third after Persepolis and Esteqlal.

But it is Ferdosipour's exchanges with officials that everyone loves most. Viewers enjoy not only the way he criticizes his guests, but also debate his occasional restraint. Part of the program's attraction lies in the audience's uncertainty about how far Ferdosipour will go each week.

Viewers participate by sending text messages, which average about two million per show. According to a sports analyst, "By relaying viewer questions and mentioning the number of text messages, Ferdosipour reminds officials that their conduct is being watched and they have to be responsive at least somewhere."

He tries to stay away from politics, but there are the occasional quips. His response to one guest -- "Okay, then you are saying that [the] people's vote is not important" -- brought joy to at least part of his audience who interpret it as a reference to the June 2009 presidential election and the widely held suspicions that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retained his seat due only to fraud.

But the reality is that Ferdosipour consistently addresses politically sensitive issues in what he calls a "football way." This approach was best exemplified in a heated program featuring reformist politician Mohsen Safaei Farahani, appointed in 2006 by FIFA as the chair of a transition board. This occurred after the suspension of Iran's football federation due to government interference. Safaei Farahani was invited to the show in early 2009 to respond to charges made by Ahamdinejad that the year-long delay in naming a head coach for the national team was his fault.

For most of the program, Ferdosipour watched the exchange between Safaei Farahani and officials of the Ahmadinejad administration who were calling in to challenge his narrative of repeated government interventions in the process of appointing a coach. Safaei Farahani, who had brought to the show extensive documentation to prove his case, was the clear winner of the debate. When the officials protested that Safaei Farahani had more time to present his side, Ferdosipour calmly reminded them that they had been invited to appear on the program as well and refused the offer. The show was so effective that the football federation ended up hastily appointing Daei, the popular retired superstar, as the coach of the national team.

A more recent controversy involved the football federation's decision to sell and transfer several Tehran teams to other cities. The details of the financial transactions and new owners involved have not been made public. But Ferdosipour's concerns are more about the fate and performance of the teams. He objects to the top-down decision-making process by the football federation that does not adequately take into account the interests of the players and conditions in the provinces that are needed for teams to thrive.

He argues that nowhere else in the world are top-tier clubs moved to other cities without appropriate preparation, in particular the establishment of an infrastructure to develop local players to feed the team. In his view, the traditional process, in which provincial clubs start in lower divisions, build a fan base, and gradually move up if they do well, remains the superior model. According to Ferdosipour, Premier League teams cannot just be moved out of Tehran and expect to develop the support of local fans in the same way teams that have organically grown in provinces such as Isfahan's Sepahan and Zob Ahan, Abadan's Sanat Naft, and Tabriz's Tractorsazi have done.

A case in point is Pas, an old arteshi or military-affiliated team with an impressive history and a 1993 Asian Club Championship to its credit. It was transferred to Hamedan in June 2007; after three seasons it lost its Premier League standing. Program 90's interviews with players and coaches revealed their unhappiness about the relocation.

A similar fate probably awaits Naft-e Tehran, which has been sold and slated to be moved to the city of Arak. On June 6, two members of parliament were invited to debate the issue. Ferdosipour bluntly told Ahmad Lofti, an Arak MP who advocated for the transfer, that his motivation was obviously the upcoming election and his need to garner votes. "Football is not political. Let football be run by football folks," Ferdosipour said.

In a recent program, he chastised reformist MP Mostafa Kavakebian for changing his position on the transfer of teams now that there is talk of moving the Premier League's Steel Azin to Semnan, Kavakebian's home province.

Though Program 90's critical coverage will probably not stop the Naft-e Tehran relocation, it has succeeded so farin thwarting the attempt to move Shahrdari-ye Kerman, formerly Mes-e Sarchemsheh Rafsanjan, to Hamedan. The club started out in the third division, made its way up to the second division and then the Azadegan League -- the division immediately below the top -- and was finally promoted to the Premier League this season. (It took its new name to avoid confusion with Kerman's Mes, already in the Premier League.)

The question of where Ferdosipour stands within Iran's factionalized political landscape is hotly debated, but many have concluded that he is not political at all and see this as his strength. Mohsen, a German-educated computer scientist, believes that this is the reason for Program 90's survival as well as its ability to cover news that is otherwise not aired, including broadcasting club-wielding security forces attacking fans in the southern city of Bushehr in 2010. "Because he is nonpolitical, he can address and debate all the country's football problems, which are ironically mostly caused by the fact that football is highly politicized in Iran," Mohsen says.

One media analyst goes so far as to suggest that Ferdosipour's innovation in making Program 90 a place for discussing different ideas about how football should be played, coached, and managed, and especially, as a venue for the audience to express its views, "has already had an impact in the decision-making circles." Institutionalized lack of transparency and accountability cannot be overcome with a single television show. But Ferdosipour is leading the way in showing how these traditions can be challenged.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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