A Tale of One City: Tehran

A Tale of One City: Tehran

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 [1979] 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 seed