This feature is part of A Tale of One City
Éamon Zayed burst between the two centre-backs hoping for a through ball to latch onto, more in hope than expectation. His new side were 2-0 down against their bitter rivals after all, reduced to 10 men and with less than 10 minutes left to play, not to mention that he didn’t share a language with his new team-mates alongside whom he had only played half a match four days earlier.
Fortunately, a ball of such sumptuous weight and perfection drifted into his path that he only needed a single touch to curl an inside-out finish, the sort like Rafa Nadal’s forehand, inside the far post. His slightly muted celebration recognised the inevitable insignificance on the result, but at least he was off the mark. Two minutes later, however, after he had leapt way above the static defence and planted a firm header down past the hapless keeper, his reaction was suddenly charged with an intensity that hinted of the most remarkable comeback.
In stoppage time, with his back to goal, he let a low cross come across his body, deftly dragging it around his marker with his left foot, before swinging his right foot to snatch a winner from the space his movement had created. All modesty was removed as he raced deliriously around the ground in pure ecstasy, chased by half the bench who could scarcely believe their eyes.
Éamon Zayed, born and raised in Dublin by an Irish mother and a Libyan father, was playing in front of 65,000 raucous fans in Iran’s biggest derby for the red of Persepolis against the blue of Esteghlal, and forever secured his legendary status with a stunning hat-trick. It was quite some way to introduce himself to the Tehran crowd, but within that match itself were small signs of the changing nature of the most hotly-contested derby in Asia.
The fact that the crowd that day three years ago was only half the record attendance in this fixture gives you both an impression of the scale of the game and of its recent decline. His teammates included the iconic former Bayern Munich midfielder and Iranian captain Ali Karimi, a youth team product in his third spell after playing in Germany, Qatar and the UAE, but by now 33 years of age and past his best. His fluid passing style meant he could still dictate play though, and along with Mohammed Nouri, the deliverer of the exquisite assist for Zayed’s opening goal, there was still quality on display.
The magnitude of the Tehran Derby owes a lot to the history of the country; not just statistics. When one considers the great rivalries of world football, the history of fixtures is often a long list of titanic battles: Everton and Liverpool, for example, have played each other an astonishing 224 times, but when it comes to Persepolis against Esteghlal, there have only been 80 derbies. There are two major factors responsible for this number, both of which have moulded the relationship between the two into a quite unique confrontation.
The first point is the birth date of the derby. The first match between these two giants of Iranian football was played in 1968 after Persepolis Athletic and Cultural Club had been formed only five years earlier. The boxer and son of a high-ranking diplomat, Ali Abdo, had returned from the United States and wanted to establish a multi-sport society, but faced a tough task to compete at the highest level in football as Shahin FC boasted the best players and most wide-reaching following.
By the mid-1960s, Shahin had claimed five Tehran championships and three Tehran Hazfi cups, and the Iran Football Federation started to fear for their endless public appeal. Abdo chose the name Persepolis – derived from the Greek ‘Perses’ meaning Persian, and ‘polis’ meaning city – as homage to the ancient Persian capital of the Achaemenid Empire that Alexander the Great sacked in his relentless conquest of the modern-day Arabian peninsula. In his epic tome Bibliotheca Historica, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that “Alexander described [Persepolis] to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia” which was ruled most significantly by Xerxes the Great, whose tyrannical reign ransacked large swathes of the Mediterranean ruthlessly suppressed uprisings in Egypt and Babylon. Figures as omnipotent and glorious as these were to be the founding identity of Persepolis as they battled their way to the forefront of the Iranian game.
Esteghlal’s conception was against a less intense backdrop in football terms. At the close of the Second World War, three army officers formed Docharkhe Savaran, or ‘The Cyclists’, hence the rings that still form part of the club crest today. Shahin was still only three years old and yet to win any major silverware, and with the backing of the military, the newer club’s birth was secure. At the end of their second season, they won the Tehran Hazfi Cup and finished as runners-up in the Tehran League, which at that stage was the pre-eminent league in the country, so were well on the way to becoming one of the most successful clubs in Iran.
Read | Éamon Zayed: an unlikely intercontinental hero
As with their cross-town rivals, their name is a significant indicator to their makeup and identity. Four years after their inception, their name was changed to Taj (meaning ‘Crown’) and signalled the far-reaching support they could count upon. Sina Saemian is a Tehran-born football writer who lived in the city until 2006, and he explains the separation between the two institutions: “Based on my personal experience, and certainly if you look further into history, there is a sense of difference between the two sets of fans in terms of social and political stance.
“As you know, Esteghlal was named Taj before the  Revolution, and the club was associated with the monarchy and the regime at the time. So it was a club with a lot of influence in the FA and even further. Persepolis are a team that owes its success to its fans, whereas with Esteghlal it is the club’s success that has raised its popularity somewhat.”
The earliest seeds of the enmity that would arise between them were sown in the first moments of Persepolis’s creation, as Saemian continues: “Persepolis have generally felt that they have been victimised, especially in the early years with the disbandment of Shahin which caused a lot of controversy. It was Shahin’s disbandment which created Persepolis as we know it, with many popular players moving to Persepolis and carrying the identity of Shahin. Esteghlal, on the other hand, have generally received better support from the governments, whether we talk about pre-revolution or post-revolution.”
In the highly controversial move that Saemian refers to above, Persepolis persuaded many of the best players from the popular but soon-to-be dissolved Shahin to guest for them in a friendly match three months after that historic first derby, after which they joined the new club on a permanent basis – along with the majority of their former team-mates. One man was key to this revolution: former Shahin captain and new Persepolis manager Parviz Dehdari. Although officially there was an attempt by the authorities to spread the players more evenly amongst the other teams, Dehdari convinced his teammates to join him and in an instant stoke a fiery relationship between them and other fans.
The 1970s were dominated by Persepolis and Esteghlal as they claimed five titles between them across the local Tehran league and the newly-formed Takht Jamshid Cup, the first fully national league competition. The manager of The Reds for the early part of the decade was the nomadic Englishman Alan Rogers, whose career path crossed four continents and whose involvement set an unlikely precedent for British involvement in the derby. A year after Rogers left his post at Shahbaz, the reincarnation of Shahin who had provided the backbone of Persepolis a decade earlier, former Everton and Crystal Palace midfielder Alan Whittle joined and became the first foreigner to play in the derby. More recently, former Bolton and Aston Villa utility man Jlloyd Samuel spent three seasons at Esteghlal alongside his old Bolton team-mate and former national team captain Andranik Teymourian, winning the Hazfi Cup in 2012 and the Iran Pro League in 2013.
Perhaps the British influence shouldn’t be such a surprise. As with the overwhelming majority of nations across the globe, the first taste of football came around the turn of the 20th century with business interests in the country. In 1908, a group of oil prospectors arrived in the western province of Khuzestan where the foreigners introduced the game to the locals in the city of Masjed Soleyman. The Persian Gulf port city of Bushehr was home to many British traders which helped the spread of football’s informal popularity, but there were also other foreign influences in Bandar Anzali and Bandar Abbas, where German boarding schools enhanced the following of this western pursuit.
The capital saw the influence of football only after the First World War when the American College of Tehran was said to be the first institution to introduce football there, and in 1919 the first official team, the Iran Club, was established. Saemian picks up the tale: “This team was formed by players and characters who were considered as the pioneers of football in the country. Hossein Sadeghian and Hossein Ali Khan-Sardar played their football in Europe and are considered the first Iranians to play and help develop football in Iran. Khan-Sardar also played for the Swiss national team while studying in Geneva, his only cap coming against France.”
In those days, there was no official Iran national side – Team Melli, as it is affectionately known, formally debuted in 1941 against British India – but there were unofficial Tehran XIs which were the precursors in all but name. In 1926, Khan-Sardar captained a representative side against their counterparts from Baku and for the return match in Tehran three years later.
Despite these forays into European football, the story of Tehran football has been and most likely will remain a relatively closed atmosphere when it comes to foreign involvement. Current champions Sepahan have four foreigners on their books, while Estaghlal only have two. This is in contrast to other leagues around the region – especially in Qatar and the UAE – where huge salaries attract world-famous names to play out an Indian summer to their careers in an increasingly diverse environment.
A typical derby day scene in the stands
“Iranian clubs cannot compete with those clubs in financial terms, the wages some of the foreign players in UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia get are second to none in the region, and Iranian clubs simply don’t have the power to compete in those terms,” Saemian states. “I spoke to Jlloyd Samuel a few months ago about life and football in Iran and he had many great things to say about the country but the only thing he complained about was false promises the club authorities made to him, delayed payments or in some cases a lack of payment of contracts which is common in Iran, especially with the two Tehran clubs.”
The second factor that has led to the low number of encounters between the big two is politics. For a game that was already approaching half a century of development in other areas of the world, to take nearly 70 years to find an official national league in Iran is astonishing on one level; less so when one considers what it represented. Traditional values held sway over western incursions into the pastimes and passions of the country’s youth, but just as the game had finally found a foothold, the vicious uprisings that resulted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution set the pace of football’s growth back a decade. Only five full seasons of the Takht Jamshid Cup were completed before the new government disbanded the league, and clubs were forced to resort back to playing in regional leagues. To complete the bleak picture of the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq War decimated playing squads of young, healthy men, and gave a sobering perspective on priorities in everyday life as football took a back seat.
The western-backed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi had overseen a controversial reign after he had come to power on the back of a British and Soviet invasion during the Second World War, deposing his own father in the process. His connections with the United States and the UK, along with his stated intention to modernise the nation, clashed with the traditional Muslim elements in the country, and when the rich-poor divide widened alarmingly following the oil boom at the start of the 1970s opposition swelled to form an unstoppable tide. As far as football was concerned, however, it was a more prosperous time as Team Melli enjoyed its most profitable period under his rule, claiming three consecutive Asian Cups.
In the early 1950s, the very same group of men who had introduced football to Iran faced a hugely damaging situation when the monopoly of their Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, an antecedent of British Petroleum, was dissolved by the nationalisation of the Iranian petroleum industry. Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh pushed through the measures aimed at reclaiming wealth for the nation, but the British and American Special Forces staged a coup to install their chosen replacement, General Fazlollah Zahedi. As the US Secretary of State in 2000, Madeleine K Albright remarked: “The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons, but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it’s easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs.”
It was in this environment that football was banished on a national level, but what it inadvertently did was lead to an even more vociferous level of support for Persepolis and Esteghlal, as they were pitted against each other in the local leagues they had competed in the 1960s. Months after the Shah had been deposed, a friendly between the clubs had to be abandoned due to crowd trouble in a sign of things to come. One quirk of the clampdown on nationalised football was one of the highest ever recorded club matches at the Azadi Stadium, a place both clubs call their home. The 1983 derby was not to be shown live by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, so the only option was for 128,000 to cram into the 100,000-capacity arena to watch Esteghlal triumph 1-0.
Of that number, not one was female – at least not legally. The ban on women attending football survives to this day, although it only applies to Iranian women; Jafar Panahi’s film Offside, documenting a group of women attempting to enter the stadium for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Bahrain, references Japanese women being allowed to attend the tragic match in 2005 where seven people died from stampedes. Progress is gradually being made, however, after a recent law was passed allowing women to attend volleyball matches. One of the spurious reasons given for not allowing women to attend is the aggression and colourful language used in the stadia by men, and while it may seem from the outside as a weak excuse, it cannot be denied that the antagonism can rise to intolerable levels in the Tehran derby.
Numerous games have been abandoned for a variety of reasons over the history of the fixture, but the first few established a particular dynamic between the fans. In 1970, with Taj winning 1-0 in the 82nd minute, the Persepolis players left the field in protest at what they saw as being biased officiating in favour of their royalist opponents. A year later, with the score tied at 1-1, the Reds again left the field for the same reason. Part of the reason for their frustration could be explained by envy; Esteghlal won the first of their two Asian Cup trophies the same year as the first abandonment after a dramatic injury-time winner. Persepolis’s reputation for playing the part of the aggrieved, working-class team of the people had been forged, but they did achieve their first derby win the year after that, before a record 6-0 victory the following year.
As if further action was necessary to cement their role in the relationship, Persepolis showed their defiance in the face of authority by shunning the regime-enforced name changes to Azadi (meaning ‘freedom’) and Pirouzi (meaning ‘victory’) in the 1980s. After the revolution, Abdo fled back to the States as the club’s property was sequestered by the government, although the fans refused to embrace the Physical Education Department’s choice of Pirouzi, and continued to call their club by its original title. Esteghlal, however, was accepted as the new name for Taj. No link to the Shah’s support could have been tolerated; the new name that has survived to the present day – which means ‘Independence’ – was adopted.
Crowd violence reared its ugly head again in the last decade of the century, leading to the introduction of foreign referees to avoid accusations of bias. The match that triggered this decision was in 1995 when Esteghlal pulled back two goals in the last ten minutes to equalise – including a penalty – which led to a pitch invasion from Persepolis fans as fights broke out on the pitch. Five years later, Ali Karimi’s 89th-minute equaliser for Persepolis saved a point, but the powder keg had already exploded.
Read | Carlos Queiroz: the man for a nation
In pre-season, Mehdi Hasheminasab had done the unthinkable and transferred directly from the Reds to the Blues, and to rub salt into the wounds of fans of his former club, he had scored what seemed to be a winner minutes before Karimi’s even later intervention. Esteghlal’s keeper Parviz Broumand and Persepolis striker Payan Rafat had been at each other’s throats all match, and Broumand eventually caught Rafat with a punch. It sparked a mass brawl; three players from each side were even arrested, while fans later rampaged through the city.
The sheer force of following that has encircled this derby throughout its history has arisen partly as a result of it being one of the only places that fans can vent their true feelings. Rapper Shahin Najafi was forced to flee to Germany over a decade ago after a fatwa was issued against him, condemning him to three years in prison and 100 lashes for the message of one of his songs, and he maintains that the claustrophobic control that the rulers have imposed on the country is suffocating:
“In this country, private and public spheres are totally separated. Nothing is allowed in public, while everything is permitted behind closed doors,” he told Der Spiegel three years ago.
When asked if he believed the problem was a generational one – the spiritual leaders are very old, while around 70 percent of the population is under 30 – he replied: “At first glance, it looks that way. I believe, though, that the grand ayatollahs are also being used. These are old men who have forgotten how to live and are out of touch with the aspirations, interests and dreams of young people in Iran. Although it is ruled in an authoritarian manner, it’s not a state in which everything is controlled from one centre. There are many forces that work in parallel: the military, the intelligence service, the Revolutionary Guard, the clergy and the government. They all share a fear of the nation’s youth.”
Saemian, who has lived in Manchester for most of the last decade, offers a less negative view of the atmosphere in the city: “The things I do in the UK, I can still do in Iran without any problems. Of course, there are some limitations such as alcohol being prohibited and the mandatory hijab which has and will spark many debates. Of course, if you’re completely against the regime then you’ll be advised not to express your views too loudly. But in terms of your everyday life, I think the western media has somewhat made Iran look like a place impossible to live in which is a shame.”
However oppressed or free life may be, what is certain is that the most public place for an outpouring of emotion is in the stadium, and especially between Tehran’s largest clubs.
In an era where removing a shirt is a bookable offence, when it comes to Persepolis and Esteghlal the effect of such a simple act is amplified. Take Blues legend Farhad Majidi; after joining Al-Gharafa of Qatar, he returned for an Asian Champions League tie against Persepolis in front of a packed Azadi stadium. Having received a second yellow card he began to leave the field, but not before revealing a blue shirt underneath, just to ensure the huge crowd remembered his affiliation. Signalling four fingers at the baying hordes – in reference to the famous run of four competitive wins in the derby that Esteghlal completed three years ago – he immortalised his status as he left the home fans fuming. Even in the very last derby, Persepolis keeper Sosha Makani goaded Esteghlal fans after his side’s narrow 1-0 win, which instigated a fight that continued into the tunnel, leading to a handful of players being suspended.
So, what lies ahead future for the fiercest derby in Asia? Both clubs could soon become private entities as the government looks to offload the burden of owning and financing them, which could potentially lead to a return of the glory days after a slump in form has seen them both finish outside the top four for the first time in history. An extraordinary general meeting of the FFIRI was called this week after pressure mounted to sort out the organisational mess that surrounds them, but history has not been kind to such attempts; four previous attempts to auction off the clubs have failed.
Corruption continues to dog the fixture – after six consecutive 1-1 draws up until the end of the last decade, foreign referees were relieved of their duties for fear that they were being bribed to avoid mass anger from fans at losing. One thing is for sure, however; any time Persepolis face Esteghlal you just never know what will happen next.
By Andrew Flint @AndrewMijFlint
With thanks to Sina Saemian from Sandals For Goalposts for his expert input. Follow him on Twitter @sinaa_sa