2010 was shaping up to be a tough year for Iranian football. The national team had embarrassingly failed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup in South Africa under the tutelage of the legendary Ali Daei – sacked after an unthinkable 2-1 home defeat to perennial rivals Saudi Arabia. Ever a fortress for Iranian teams for decades, the cavernous Azadi Stadium had been breached. In similar fashion, 95,000 rage-filled spectators would be heartbroken two months later at the same venue, with popular club Persepolis losing their AFC Champions League round of sixteen tie 1-0 to Bunyodkor of Uzbekistan. Three out of four typically strong-performing Iranian sides had been knocked out of the same competition at the group stages, reducing Iranian football to a new low entering the second decade of the new millennium.
Enter unfashionable little Zob Ahan from Esfahan, historically considered the second team of Iran’s second city - a Persian Everton to Iran’s Liverpool: the widely-loved and privately-owned Foolad Sepahan. Boasting average home attendance figures of well under 5,000 in a rusting stadium more suited to an ex-Soviet Sunday league factory team, Iranian fans would have bet (underground, of course) their homes, wives and children against Zob Ahan being the catalysts of an Iranian football revival.
With no star names in a lineup that featured the ex-Flamengo striker and brilliantly named Igor Castro, Zob Ahan sent shockwaves (non-nuclear, of course) through Iran as they finished second in the Iran Pro League and won the Hazfi Cup in 2008/09. This qualified them to be drawn in the group of death in the 2010 AFC Champions League alongside 3-time finalists Al Ittihad of Saudi Arabia, UAE giants Al Wahda and the oligarch-backed champions of Uzbekistan, Bunyodkor, coached by the World Cup-winning Chelsea reject Luis Felipe Scolari. From a Zob Ahan point of view, just getting points on the board in that season’s continental showpiece would have been an immense achievement.
To say that they started the tournament strongly would have been an understatement. A 1-0 home win against Al Wahda and an incredible fightback from 2 goals down in Jeddah to draw with a lethal Al Ittihad side provided the backdrop for a crushing 3-0 home victory over Bunyodkor on a breezy Esfahan afternoon.
Qualification to the round of 16 was confirmed with a stunning 1-0 return victory in Tashkent and a win at home against Al Ittihad by the same scoreline – the pint-sized striker Mohammad Reza Khalatbari scoring in both. It was Khalatbari’s alleged ‘lack of physical strength’ that failed to win over Zvonimir Soldo during a trial at FC Koln in 2009, but the diminutive Iranian’s pace, skill and quick-thinking on display undoubtedly shunned any notion that the 27 year old was unprepared for physical, uncompromising backlines.
An unspectacular 1-0 win over fellow Iranians Mes Kerman – who themselves had surprised many by qualifying from a tough group - in the round of 16 set up a mouth-watering clash with the reigning AFC Champions League winners, Pohang Steelers. Fresh from finishing third at the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup, the Korean heavyweights were the overwhelming favourites to overcome the Iranians, despite their 9th place position in their domestic league at the time. With this in mind, Zob Ahan’s coach Mansour Ebrahimzadeh alluded to the Koreans’ superior continental experience prior to their first leg tie:
Many people might look at their position in the league but we’re looking at their experience in Asia,” he said. “We always wanted to add to our own experience by playing in the biggest matches and tomorrow will give us that opportunity.”
If Zob Ahan were worried about experience being a factor at their tiny Fooladshahr Stadium, they certainly failed to show it on the pitch, winning the first leg 2-1 courtesy of a 76th minute penalty by Mehdi Rajabzadeh. A rare breakaway by the Iranians in the second leg tie in Korea resulted in the livewire Mohammad Reza Khalatbari turning his man and firing a shot that went in off the post – his first clear cut opportunity of the game to level the game at 1-1. Cue bedlam on the Zob Ahan bench and in living rooms across Iran as a semi-final clash with Saudi giants and six-time continental champions Al Hilal was sealed. Boasting the likes of Christian Wilhelmsson and Mirel Radoi in a squad managed by Belgian journeyman Eric Gerets, Al Hilal on paper looked a formidable test for any side. They had, however, lost in the group stages to the aforementioned surprise package from Iran, Mes Kerman, and narrowly edged their quarterfinal tie with the unspectacular Qatari outfit Al Gharafa. They were far from unbeatable and Zob Ahan were brimming with momentum going into the first leg tie in Esfahan.
Their confidence manifested itself in spectacular fashion on 55 minutes as captain Ghasem Hadadifar’s audacious 35-yard free kick crept under the Al Hilal wall in a perfectly straight line and nestled snugly into the back of the net. Despite some Gordon Banks-esque saves from the opposition keeper, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Zob Ahan as they survived a penalty miss and put in numerous last-ditch tackles to keep the Saudi champions at bay.
Al Hilal were unbeaten at home in the competition that season, and were boosted by the return to fitness of their star man Yasser Al Qahtani for the second leg. For Zob Ahan, defending a narrow 1-0 lead as they stepped out into the intimidating all-male cauldron of the 65,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh appeared far from an easy task.
What followed was one of the most composed performances of an Iranian side in years, as Zob Ahan’s defensive resilience succeeded in nullifying any Al Hilal attacking threat that came their way. The Iranians looked dangerous on the counter attack, and the Christian Bale lookalike Igor Castro pounced on a rare defensive error by captain Osama Al Hawsawi to score a vital goal to put the tie beyond reach.
The sending off of the ex Spurs left-back Lee Young Pyo 20 minutes from time only added to the Saudis’ woes, who left the field dejected after their 1-0 loss at the final whistle. Rapturous Iranian fans from across the globe drew parallels with the Team Melli’s home defeat to the Saudis in World Cup Qualifying, and saw Zob Ahan’s progression to the final as ample, sweet revenge.
If Zob Ahan’s fairytale was to have a happy ending, they would have to overcome fellow finalists Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma at the Tokyo National Stadium. The South Korean side on paper were a formidable outfit, their defence marshalled by the Australian Saša Ognenovski and their attack led by Colombian Mauricio Molina, the latter looking to finish as the tournament’s Golden Boot winner upon conclusion of the final. Seognam had been finalists as recently as 2004, and were playing their fourth final to date. A daunting prospect for the Iranians, who nevertheless were buoyed by their giant-killing efforts in previous rounds, as touched on by defender Farshid Talebi to the IRNA News Agency:
“Nobody gave us a chance to qualify from the group of death, which included Saudi Arabia’s Al Ittihad and Uzbekistan champions Bunyodkor, but we did it. I hope we will win the title and dedicate it to the Iranian fans”
The match itself, played on a freezing November night, started as a cagey affair with both sides going close early on – Molina firing just wide of the right hand post for Seognam and the towering Ognenovski blocking an Igor Castro shot on the line. The Australian’s intervention proved a crucial one as he duly headed the Koreans into a 1-0 lead after 29 minutes. Holding their advantage past half time, it was 2-0 on 52 minutes as Cho Byung Kuk capitalised on a set piece to head home.
Despite the setback, Zob Ahan soldiered on and sent their tiny band of travelling support wild by halving the deficit with 24 minutes to play - their talisman Khalatbari scoring with a looping header. A fightback beckoned, but the Korean side had other ideas. Save after save from the Seognam keeper frustrated numerous Iranian players, desperate to rediscover their fighting spirit that so often materialised during the group stages. In heartbreaking fashion, Kim Cheol Ho made it 3-1 on 83 minutes to ensure that the AFC Champions League trophy would be staying in South Korea.
Their heads held high, Zob Ahan headed back to Iran as heroes – having continually overcome their underdog moniker to end up so close to Asian glory. Success continued into the following season, with a 2nd place finish in the Iran Pro League guaranteeing them a place in the 2011 AFC Champions league – where their newfound experience and credentials led them to a narrow quarter-final defeat to Suwon Samsung Bluewings.
Like the great Ajax squad of the mid-nineties, the success of Zob Ahan’s domestic and Asian campaigns thrust their players onto the continental stage and the club’s vital assets had departed in droves to richer pastures by 2012. Star performer Mohammad Reza Khalatbari – potentially traumatised by his brief European sojourn – stayed close to home, joining the Diego Maradona revolution at Al Wasl in Dubai via Qatari side Al Gharafa. Top scorers Igor Castro, Mohammad Ghazi left for Yokohama FC and Persepolis respectively, with goalkeeper Shahab Gordan eventually joining cross-town rivals Sepahan.
The squad dissected, they finished 6th and 14th in the next two editions of the domestic league, condemning Asian Champions League football to a distant, beautifully recent memory in the minds of those who still grace the rusty bleachers of the Fooladshahr Stadium.