The biggest game in Iran and one of the biggest derbies in world football, welcome to Persepolis v Esteghlal.

A match that has long symbolized and resembled what Iranian football is all about. A match that has long brought a whole nation to its feet from region to region, city to city, town to town and village to village. The most talked about and highly anticipated that’s not only considered one of the greatest rivalries/ derbies in Iran, but also worldwide proven by its selection as the 22nd greatest derby in the world by World Soccer Magazine in 2008. The match, rivalry and derby that I’m talking about is the great “Surkhabi Derby” between the Persian country’s two greatest ever and most popular clubs, Persepolis and Esteghlal.

Persepolis, a club founded in 1963 by a former boxer by the name of Ali Abdo who travelled all the way, from America to the Islamic Republic of Iran in the goal of establishing this football club. Persepolis, was established in the country’s capital- Tehran- and at first, struggled to leave an impression in the third tier of Iranian football. Then, in 1967, a big break came upon them when respected and successful Iranian side and football school- Shahin- dissolved after pressure from the Iranian government threatened by its popularity and expanding fan base. Many of its players left and dispersed throughout the country attracting the attention of various clubs, including Persepolis, who successfully nabbed some of its most talented players including Hossein “Golden Toes” Kalani, Homayoun “The White Falcon” Behzadi, Parviz Dehdari (who was also head coach of Iran’s national side at one point), Hamid “Golden Feet” Shirzadegan, and Dr. Masoud Boroumand- who also played for Lebanon’s national side for a certain period of time.  

These players helped propel Persepolis, who went from stride to stride, leaving their mark and impression by winning a total of 9 league titles, the most by any team in the country, and 5 cup titles. Persepolis, also known as Pirouzi (which means Victory in Persian) after the 1979 revolution, have been blessed with many of Iran’s greatest players and talents that include the all time international top scorer Ali Daei, gifted two-footed midfielder and freekick specialist Karim Bagheri, Mehdi “The Carpet”  Mahdavikia, “Sultan” Ali Parvin (featured in 20 derbies, the most appearances by any player), former Asian Player of the Year Khodadad Azizi, Mehdi Hashemnisab who’s a once club icon who risked his popularity and wrath of his supporters when he joined their eternal rivals Esteghlal, all time derby goalscorer Safar Iranpak,  Afshin Peyrovian, and one of the best dribblers I’ve ever seen in my life time, the talented and hugely popular- Ali Karimi- who, unsurprisingly, is nicknamed the “Maradona of Asia”.

The “Red Army” have also left an indelible mark on continental football winning the Asian Cup Winners Cup in 1991 defeating Bahrain giants, Muharraq, 1-0 on aggregate in a two-legged affair.  They also reached the final of the same tournament two years later in 1993, but unfortunately, ended up beaten by Japan’s Nissan 2-1 on aggregate. Despite all their success and achievements, Persepolis have endured a rough period of late with their last league success in 2008, due to the managerial instability, financial difficulties, and the emergence and rise of clubs based outside the capital like Sepahan and Foolad.

Persepolis’ main and eternal rivals located close by, Esteghlal, was founded just after the end of the Second World War in 1945. The club was originally established as a cycling club and not football, given the name “Docharkeh Savaran”, which means “The Cyclists” in Persian. After four years since its establishment, the name was changed to “Taj” or crown in Persian in 1949. The reason for the name is because they’re considered the “royal” club, supported by the government (current president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is a well known admirer) and by people of Iran’s upper and high class society.  The name was finally changed to its present day, “Esteghlal”, which means independence in Persian, after the 1979 revolution where any sort of indication or resemblance of the former monarchy had to be erased and removed.

“The Blues” have also left a huge mark on Iranian football and achieved plenty of success which includes 7 league titles and 6 cups. Esteghlal have also achieved continental success where they won the now Asian Champions League on two occasions in 1970 against Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv in Tehran and Chinese side Liaoning FC in 1991, winning both matches 2-1.

Just like their great rivals, Esteghlal, were blessed with many of Iran’s greatest talents and players who’ve left their mark and an everlasting impression on the sport. These players include  Nasser Hejazi, also known as the “Legend”, who’s considered one of the greatest keepers not just in Iran, but the whole of Asia. Hejazi, long opposed the regime of the country’s current president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and is one of the most respected and highly regarded sporting figures ever to come out of Iran.

Other notable players who’ve left a mark at the club include Andranik Eskandarian, a player of Armenian ethnicity who played in the United States for a period of time, goalkeeper Ahmed Abedzadeh who’s played in 13 derbies for both clubs and was never defeated, Heshmat Mohajerani who later became one of Iran’s most successful managers when he lead the national side to an Asian Cup success in 1976 and World Cup qualification in 1978, Reza Enayati, controversial keeper Parviz Broumand, Alireza Vahedi who’s a once popular player and club fan favorite who later left to play for the club’s arch-nemesis Persepolis, and highly respected and popular striker-Farhad Majidi- along with many other talented players. Esteghlal, just like with Persepolis, have struggled to win the league in recent years with their last achievement in 2009, mainly- as mentioned earlier- due to the rise of clubs such as Sepahan among others.

These two prestigious and historic clubs faced each other for the very first time, officially, on April 5, 1968 at the Shahid Shiroudi Stadium in Tehran, which ended in a goalless draw. Ever since that day, both sides have played each other over 70 times with the intensity and ferocity between the two sides building up over the years through allegations of match fixing, favoritism, dodgy officiating among others turning the derby into one of the most fascinating, exciting and tense rivalries in world football.

Due to the enormous stature, tension, and attention the Surkhabi derby receives, there have been several memorable and unforgettable matches that have left a mark not only on the supporters of either team, but on Iranian football itself.

On February 6, 1970 and January 17, 1971, both derby matches ended in a 3-0 win for Esteghlal (still Taj at the time) after Persepolis players walked off the pitch and abandoned due to claims and in protest against the match officials. Iran’s football federation ruled in favor of Esteghlal- handing them an automatic 3-0 victory on both occasions.

These two matches highlighted the growing tensions and animosity between both sides and the beginning of a fierce and fiery rivalry fueled not only by the prestige and history of both sides located near each other, but also because of the class and societal differences of both sets of supporters with both sides having a combined fanbase of over 15 million. Persepolis’ are mainly supported by the working class of Iran’s society and in contrast, Esteghlal, as mentioned earlier, is supported by the country’s upper class which includes those working within the government like Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

On September 7, 1973, Persepolis got their long-awaited revenge in style, thrashing their rivals 6-0, the biggest ever margin of victory between the two sides in their history which still stands to this day. This match also witnessed the first ever hat-trick in this derby through Persepolis legend,  Humayoun Behzadi, who etched himself into the record books and history especially as he achieved this feat in the grandest football stage in the country. The scoreline is still celebrated by Persepolis’ fans till this day with chants of “Shh- shh- shish” (“Ss-ss-six”) regularly heard during derby matches.

On October 7, 1983, another history making event was witnessed when a reportedly record breaking 128,000 spectators packed and crowded inside the fabled and legendary Azadi Stadium, which is shared by both clubs. This enormous outpouring of supporters was instigated and inspired by Iran’s main television broadcaster, IRIB, who refused to televise this match. The stadium was so full (Azadi had a capacity of 100,000) that many spectators climbed the metal base of the stadium’s floodlights to have a view of the action and support their side. Estehglal went on to win this match 1-0. It is, till this day, the highest attendance ever recorded for this derby and is unlikely to ever be broken due to renovations and other restrictions reducing its capacity to 90,000.

On January 11, 1995, allegations of match fixing and bias went to its boiling point during this match. Persepolis were leading 2-0 with 10 minutes left on the clock, until, Esteghlal scored two goals in quick succession that angered the Persepolis’ players and supporters. Supporters began to storm onto the pitch insinuating fights between both fans and players, including one famous or infamously involving Mojtaba Moharami (Persepolis) and Amir Ghalenoei of Esteghlal. From that match forward, because of this incident, Iran’s football federation began to rely on foreign referees to officiate the derby matches in an effort to avoid these sorts of incidents and allegations from occurring again.

The most ferocious, infamous and violent derby occurred on December 29, 2000. In this match, Esteghlal keeper- Parviz Broumand- altercated with Persepolis’ Payan Rafat. After continuous insults from both players, Broumand lost it, and threw a punch at Rafat, causing absolute mayhem where a massive fight broke out between the players. It didn’t stop there. After the match, fans from both sides began to riot, vandalizing and destroying anything in their path from cars, buses, and even shops. All in all, after the mayhem simmered, over 250 cars, buses, and shops were vandalized and damaged. Three players from both teams as well as a total of 60 fans were arrested as a result. While the main instigator, Parviz Broumand, received the biggest punishment, an 18 month suspension, which was later reduced. The incident is considered the most violent and destructive of all Surkhabi derbies over the years, and the one that caused the most damage of property and the most ferocious.

The latest derby was last played this year on the 2nd of February, is probably the most dramatic and heart-stopping of all derbies that have ever been played- that is if you’re a Persepolis fan. Persepolis have been struggling all season, languishing in 7th place in the league and going through a poor run of form heading into this derby against an upbeat Esteghlal side, who are neck and neck with Sepahan in the title race. This difference of form and fortunes was displayed, when Persepolis were down 2-0 to Esteghlal with just 10 minutes remaining. Then, miraculously, Ireland born striker- Eamon Zayed- came into the fore grabbing an unbelievable and stunning hat-trick, handing them an astonishing 3-2 win over their bewildered eternal rivals in a match that looked all but going Esteghlal’s way. In the process, Eamon Zayed, became just the second player and first in around 30 years to score a hattrick in this fabled derby.

This match, derby and rivalry has produced so many memories, drama, and excitement and brought players on the pedestal etching them into eternal folklore and history of Iranian football. This derby long been the match to watch and look out for in Iran, a match that brought huge popularity to both teams who’ve the largest fan bases in the country, Persepolis with amongst the largest in all of Asia. There’s never a shred of boredom when these two teams collide and I’m looking forward to the next chapter of this fascinating and captivating Surkhabi derby.

Also, my thoughts and prayers go out to Ali Daei who I hope receives a full and successful recovery after his car accident a few weeks back. Hope to see him back on his feet very soon inshallah.

A special mention goes out to RSSF’s Asghar Zarei for taking the time to help me with this piece.

You can follow Omar on twitter @OAlmasri & read more of his work here

Picture shared under a Creative Commons Licence by ATOMICSHED.