FOOTBALL IN IRAN

A country more remembered for its long term conflicts and political battles with the West and its Middle Eastern neighbours and counterparts than the achievements, success and illustrious history it has accomplished in the sport it has long been mad and passionate about, football. This nation has produced many talented and gifted footballers over the years which has turned it into a footballing force, not only in the Middle East, but in all of Asia. The nation that I’m referring to is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Football in Iran dates back to the early twentieth century when oil prospectors from Britain introduced and brought the game to the Bakhtiari tribesmen in the southwest region of the country. Football developed and spread throughout the country, endearing itself to the people, and became popular in the process. This popularity helped in the establishment and founding of Iran’s own football federation in 1920, and eventually joined both FIFA and AFC in 1945 and 1958, respectively.

After the founding of its federation, local club competitions were held that helped in boosting the sport’s rising popularity and the formation of more clubs which came to the fore in the 1940’s and 50’s. Academies and football schools began to develop during this period, the most popular and respected was a club called Shahin.

Shahin was founded in 1942 by Dr. Abbas Ekrami and this club provided a blueprint, and left a huge impression on Iranian football with its production of some of the country’s most talented players including Homayoun Behzadi and Dr. Masoud Boroumand, both considered amongst the nation’s all-time greats.

Shahin, due to their wealth of talent, became the most popular club in Iran and its strongest during the 1940’s to the late 1960’s where they won a string of titles and successes. Unfortunately, the government of Iran became jealous and felt threatened by their enormous popularity amongst the people, forcing the club to close in 1966. Many of Shahin’s players were signed by clubs all over the country forming their backbone and helping them reach new heights, including Persepolis, who are now considered one of the two (the other their rivals, Esteghlal) most dominant and prestigious clubs in the country and left their mark, not only in Iran, but also continentally in Asia as well.

Iran’s first ever football league was established a few years after the dissolution of Shahin in 1970. The league was played by local clubs, and lasted two seasons. The two most popular clubs in Iran, Persepolis and Esteghlal (called Taj back then), won those two championships. The league later evolved into one that includes clubs from all over the country; Iran’s first nationwide football league.

The Takht Jamshid Cup, despite the inclusion of various clubs from all over the country, was still dominated by clubs from the capital, in this case, by Persepolis and the emerging Pas Tehran who won the trophy in two consecutive seasons (1976/77 and 1977/78). Just like the local league, the Takht-Jamshid Cup, didn’t last long either and was dissolved after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which led to the dethronement of the Shah.

The league and football in Iran, in general, came to a huge standstill and suffered many interruptions due to its long and costly war with neighbors Iraq in the 1980’s. Clubs suffered from financial loss and instability and many changed their names due to political reasons, including Persepolis who became Pirouzi after the revolution, but the original name is still widely used.

In 1989, a football league was established, named the Al Qods League, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. This league lasted only a season and was duly won by Esteghlal. The next year, in 1991, the Al Qods League was renamed to the Azadegan League in celebration of the return of Iran’s prisoners of war from Iraq. In the first four seasons since it began, the usually dominant Persepolis and Esteghlal struggled and clubs like the emerging Saipa of the Alborz Province and the now dissolved Pas of Tehran impressed, winning two consecutive league titles; Pas in 1993 and Saipa in 1995. However, Perespolis and Esteghlal, slowly regained momentum and won the remaining league championships which lasted until 2001.

Finally, in 2001, Iran established its first professional football league where 18 clubs from around the nation compete for the title. Iran’s second division is named after one of the nation’s earlier leagues, the Azadegan League, where 24 clubs compete. Clubs located outside the capital emerged from the shadows after the establishment of the professional league. These include Foolad, Zob Ahan and, of course- Sepahan- who’ve won the last two league titles, leading the race in the current one. They also reached the final of the Asian Champions League in 2007 where they, unfortunately, succumbed to defeat at the hands of Japanese side Urawa Reds. Other Iranian clubs who’ve tasted continental success include Esteghlal (as Taj) in 1970 and 1996, Persepolis in 1990, and Pas Tehran in 1992. Not only have clubs in the country experienced the taste of success, but so has its national side, known as Team Melli.

Team Melli have a prestigious and illustrious history in the sport especially continentally, where they won the Asian Nations Cup on three occasions in 1968, 1972 and 1976, all before the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Team Melli also won the continent’s own version of the Olympics - the Asian Games’ football tournament - on four occasions in 1974, 1990, 1998 and 2002. Despite all these successes, their biggest ever achievement is, arguably, qualifying for the greatest football tournament of them all, the World Cup. Iran achieved this feat on three separate occasions in 1978, 1998 and 2006. The 1998 World Cup is where Team Melli left its biggest impression. In a highly anticipated match with long-time political rival and adversary, United States, Iran ran away with a memorable and historic 2-1 win. The winning goal was scored by former Hamburg star and Iranian legend Mehdi Mahdavikia a goal which long lives in the memory of every Iranian and is still talked about to this day.

Besides Mahdavikia, many Iranian players have also left an impression on the sport, domestically and continentally, over the years. These include Ali Daei, the all time top goal scorer in international football and the only player to reach and beat the 100 goal mark, Hossein Kalani who not only won the Asian Nations Cup in 1976 but also was its top scorer and best player, legendary goal keeper Nasser Hejazi who's regarded as one of Asia’s all time best keepers, the “Maradona of Asia” Ali Karimi who was voted as the continent’s best player in 2004 due to his exploits with Iran in the 2004 Asian Nations Cup, and another former Asian Player of the Year winner in Khodadad Azizi.

In spite of all the achievements and success over the years, politics, as displayed with the United States encounter, has long played a role and influence on the national sport. Many of the clubs are run and are somehow connected to the government, specifically 17 out of the 18 clubs in the Premier League, while the other, Steel Azin, is run by a Revolutionary Guard by the name of Hossein Hedayati. This factor has, of course, influenced and given an unfair advantage to such teams. This power and influence has helped clubs pay big money for their players, who reportedly receive an average of up to $800,000 a year in a country where the average income is around $3,500 a year. Clubs also suffer from unstable, unbalanced and even insufficient budgets and income due to such involvement, as well as a lack of copyright laws and patents concerning merchandise which affects their financial potential and budget.

Clubs are also banned and prohibited from producing and launching their own private independent TV networks, all which have affected their goals of privatization, which remains a huge challenge. Another reason for lack of private clubs is that when a club is partly or fully owned by the government, they receive massive tax breaks which is a huge incentive, especially when it comes to paying up the enormous salaries of players. This factor also helps them stay on the good side of the Basij, a volunteer arm of the Revolutionary Guard who constantly keep an eye on football players and report bad behavior, if it suffices. It’s worth noting that the two private clubs in Iran are in the second division and are unable to compete financially with government-involved clubs.

Political involvement in the sport took a turn for the worse a few years ago, during the 2009 Iranian presidential elections. Current leader Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's reign came under threat from Mir Hossein Mousavi and the tensions between both sides erupted into mass protests, leading to police intervention and brutality to suppress and end these protests. This brutality and force shocked the world, heightened by the now infamous video of the killing of an Iranian woman by the name of "Nada" who lay helplessly slowly losing her breath and life in front of her horrified father. This heartbreaking image and video spread like wildfire and enraptured many from around the world, leading to waves of demonstrations and marches in honour of this young, innocent woman. Protests and support for the Mousavi didn't end there and spread to the football pitch.

In a World Cup Qualifier against South Korea, several players including the very popular Ali Karimi, wore green armbands in support of Mousavi and the protesters. They were later removed at half time, most likely under the manager's orders, but the stance was enough to cause shock and commotion all around the nation. While Ahmedinejad has also tried to use his power and authority to affect the results of the football federation elections, a federation headed by Ali Kafashian. Ahmedinejad had issues with Kafashian because of the fact that he failed to lift his stuttering image as leader of the country through football. Kafashian has been criticized by Iranian football fans as well for a chaotic reign that ranged from managerial instability, a dismal World Cup 2010 qualification, and causing the woman’s football team’s disqualification due to the ban on wearing the hijab by FIFA. This, however, didn't go according to his plan as Kafashian gained re-election, the first ever to do so, displaying the decreasing support and backing for the Iranian president since the brutal crackdown on the 2009 protests.

Not only has Iranian politics in football affected the sport domestically, but internationally as well. In 2007, a Germany U-21 player of Iranian descent, Ashkan Dejagah, refused to play a match for his side against Israel, a nation in which Iran has had a long time feud and tensions with. This decision was applauded by the Iranian media, but not by German authorities, where its football federation omitted him from the side, and he hasn't played for them since. Dejagah is now a full Iranian international and scored a memorable brace in Iran's final World Cup qualifying match against Qatar not so long ago.

Iran's political tensions and differences have now spread to its neighboring Gulf countries, particularly the tiny nation of Bahrain who are in the midst of constant protests and demonstrations; their biggest political divide and tension in years. Iran have openly defended and stood up for the country's Shi'te population who are leading the opposition and protests against the government of Bahrain, and this has angered the Bahraini authorities as well as the rest of the Gulf region who are in support of the regime like the UAE, who cancelled their match and recalled their ambassador from Iran. Iran was grouped alongside Bahrain, and both matches, including the one held in Bahrain, were filled with tension.

In the first match in Iran, where the guests – Bahrain - were given top level security at all times overseen and guarded by a special security envoy throughout their stay in the country. On matchday, Bahrain were down to ten men just seconds after the whistle was blown, when their player Rashid Khalil launched a scything challenge that led to an automatic dismissal, and gave Iran momentum to seal victory with a thumping 6-0 win. During that match, many Iranians wore t-shirts with a picture of Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, the famous landmark which was the scene of Bahrain protests and was recently torn down by the government.

In the return leg in Bahrain, Iran didn't receive a hospitable welcoming.

In the return match, when Iran's national anthem was tuned on, Bahrain supporters jeered, booed, waved the Saudi flag in support of their efforts to quash the protests alongside the monarchy and even held their shoes and slippers up high in protest, while a masked man holding the Bahraini flag stormed onto the pitch during the first half displaying the rising tensions between the two nations. Iran also accused them of throwing water bottles and other objects on the players and their supporters, a claim which Bahrain refuted. Many on Facebook and other social networking sites and forums were all over this match, especially pro-regime supporters, who believed that this was a “must win” for the nation, highlighting how this match has become beyond football, turning into more of a political battle and showdown. It only got worse in the final qualifying match when Bahrain were leading Indonesia by a whopping 9-0 scoreline and during that time, Iran were 2-1 ahead against Qatar. Bahrain needed to defeat Indonesia by more than 8 goals and for Iran to win to qualify to the final stage, which was going according to plan at that stage. Then, with just minutes remaining, Qatar grabbed an equalizer which all but ended Bahrain's chances of qualifying alongside Iran. Bahrainis believed that Iran intentionally and purposely gave away that goal to Qatar, while Iran welcomed the equalizer, especially the Iranian commentator who remarked that they were "better off" (without Bahrain).

Politics isn't the only issue surrounding the sport. Religion has also affected football in Iran too. Women and girls in the country aren't allowed to attend football matches due to religious sentiment and beliefs. Some have tried to defy that order including a young girl by the name of Behnaz Eskandari, who attended a match hidden by her father from the authorities and in disguise. Eskandari, who was 11 at the time, narrowly escaped with her life after a post-match stampede erupted leaving seven people dead and forty injured, one of them Behnaz herself. Iran have also had issues with FIFA and other high sporting authorities over their ban on women wearing the hijab during matches. Iran's women sides have defied that order on many occasions, especially recently during a qualifier to the London Olympics, a defiance that forced the Olympic committee to ban them from participating in the upcoming event in London. The aspect of religion has also affected men's football. In 2009, during a goal celebration, Mohamed Nosrati touched and slapped teammate Rehmat Rezaei's backside. The celebration caused uproar and controversy that led to a ban and $40,000 fine for both players on the charges of committing “immoral acts.”

Politics and religion have long run the rule, at times, over the heavily popular sport in the nation. They're two of the biggest issues and aspects surrounding football, not only just in Iran, but in many other nations as well. But, despite the magnitude of their influence, they're not the only issues the sport faces in Iran. Its football stadiums, training grounds, and other related facilities, over the years, have suffered from poor planning and lack of physical infrastructure, an issue that Iran has tried to fix and deal with over the years. Despite Iran’s rather large area, the nation possesses just one international-standard stadium in the Azadi, one of the world’s largest football arenas, a fact that proves that a lack of quality stadiums remains an issue for Iran along with many unfinished or incomplete projects like the Naqshe Jahan Stadium in Isfahan, still undergoing renovations, and is expected to hold more than 70,000 spectators and to be completed in 2013.

Iran have tried to rectify their issues by focusing on renovating and building new football infrastructure with the cooperation of FIFA, who've spent over $3 million on three separate projects concerning this issue. Projects, held separately in 2001, 2004, and 2008, included the building of the nation's football association headquarters in the capital of Tehran, implementing and applying artificial turfs on their training and official pitches, as well as introducing training programs and building a national football academy to promote youth football along with improving the nation's overall football infrastructure.

Iran’s president also made a bold and huge move by lifting the ban on women attending football matches, which has long been a controversial and sensitive issue to help improve his image, but was quickly overruled by the supreme leader in the country, Ayatollah Al Khamenei, displaying the political and government involvement in the sport which ultimately led to a short ban by FIFA in that year due to such interference.

On the pitch, Iran's national side has qualified to the final stage of the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers after topping their group that included Qatar and Bahrain. Team Melli have the ability to pull through and sneak their way into headlining in Brazil with a talented group of players that include Ashkan Dejagah, Spain-based Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei, Gholam Rezaei, Mujtaba Jabari, Mohamed Nosrati among others. They're currently ranked 52 in the world according to FIFA and are contenders to reach the finals in Brazil.

Iran has long been embroiled in battles and issues over the years which has affected its relations and reputation with other nations, as well as its football and progress in the sport. They have a long and eventful history with plenty of success along the way; success and history that has turned and cemented them as one of the best footballing nations in Asia, and one of its most feared. Their history and the wealth of talent they possess will help them in their quest for qualification to football’s greatest stage, the World Cup, and more glory and success in future tournaments.

I’m looking forward to watching Team Melli in that quest and I expect them to challenge, as always, for future tournaments and accolades.

Omar would like to thank RSSF’s Asghar Zarei for helping him with this piece.

You can read more from Omar here.

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