Shah vs. Ayatollah and queues at 5:30 a.m.: Why Esteghlal vs. Persepolis is more than a game

A country caught in the shadow of political unrest, football is Iran's escape. For the July 2009 issue of FourFourTwo, Ben Lerwill attended its biggest football derby - including "only" 95,000 spectators, and a lot of armed police...

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Early afternoon, the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, London. The waiting area is warm and full of fidgety visa-hopefuls. Naturally enough, the room feels foreign. Chandeliers dangle next to banners embroidered in Farsi. Two clocks look out from the wall – one gives the wrong time in London, the other the wrong time in Tehran.

Eyes, however, are focused elsewhere. Above the windowed counter, a large widescreen television beams out live league soccer from the fatherland. Every face present stares up at the game. Men in smart shirts stick their heads in to check on the score and josh each other. For the hour or so that FourFourTwo is there, attention barely wavers from the screen. 

When FFT is able to leave, we walk to the string of Persian grocery stores on High Street Kensington and fall into conversation with Kamran, a twenty-something shop assistant marooned behind a bank of nuts and sugared pastries. An Iranian flag stands by his till. 

Iran loves its football, man. Esteghlal and Persepolis: There’s a lot of football in the world, but that game does not compare

- Kamran, Iranian fan in London

We talk about his native country. I tell him I’ve just come from the Embassy, and they were showing a game. “Sounds right,” he smiles. “Iran loves its football, man. But the big one’s in a couple of weeks. The two Tehrani teams. Esteghlal and Persepolis.” 

When I explain that I’m travelling out to watch it, his eyes bulge. He apologizes to the customer he’s serving and strides over to shake my hand. “Man, that game! I’ve been twice and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m serious. There’s a lot of football in the world, but that game…” He pauses to find the right words. “That game does not compare.”      

A derby which extends beyond the city

Almost 3000 miles away, a vast city lays spread at the foot of the snow-capped Alborz Mountains. Tehran is home to one of the fiercest and most controversial football rivalries in Asia. Iran’s Persian Gulf League has 18 clubs and in terms of popularity, 16 of them exist in the shadows.

The two that draw the light do so emphatically. Their support bases extend not just among the 15 million people that live in the city but across the entire country, the continent, even the world. If you’re a fan in – or from – Iran, it’s almost a given that you’re either a Persepolis red or an Esteghlal blue.  

Sport in the country is dominated by football. Locals need precious little excuse to bring up the 2-2 draw with Australia that took the national team to France `98. Once it got there, the 2-1 victory over (who else?) the U.S. resulted in the biggest crowds seen since the Iranian Revolution two decades earlier. 

Iran held Scotland to a draw at Argentina 1978

Iran has been to three World Cups: 1978, 1998 and 2006. At Argentina 1978, it famously came from behind to earn a draw with Scotland. When it hosted Japan in the qualifying rounds for the 2006 finals, 110,000 turned out to cheer them on, becoming that tournament’s largest crowd under any confederation. Street kiosks sell almost a dozen newspapers dedicated solely to football; Esteghlal and Persepolis both have dedicated publications.

There are two Irans. The first is a country defined by unsettling headlines, a nation embroiled in debates over nuclear armament and state-sponsored terrorism. Its president makes breathtakingly undiplomatic comments on Israel and homosexuality. Women are bound to keep their heads covered at all times in public and forbidden from attending men’s football. Liberal values are denounced by officialdom. 

In the eyes of many, the country is a scowling theocracy with hardline global ambitions. Alcohol is illegal. The nightclubbing chapter in the Lonely Planet guidebook is just two words long. It reads: “Dream on.”    

1997: The Iranian national team celebrate qualifying for the 1998 World Cup

The second is street-level Iran, where introducing yourself as British is likely to meet with nothing more threatening than an invitation to tea. “Ah, Manchester! Liverpool!” It’s a country where genial hospitality to strangers is a way of life, where mutterings over governmental ineptitude are commonplace and where elegant girls in colored headscarves turn heads on the pavement. 

Again and again, the people you meet are charming, trusting and endlessly inquisitive. There’s a deep pride in the Shia faith and Persia’s ancient culture, just as there’s an astute awareness of outside perceptions. 

The strange truth is that both faces – the cold-eyed fundamentalism and the humbling warmth – exist in full. A five-minute walk can take you from rabid anti-Western murals (sample slogan: “Let the U.S. be angry with us and die of this anger”) to craft stalls where women in jeans sell handmade love-hearts.

Fearsomely stubbled policemen melt into goodwill when asked for directions. One of the first billboards you see on the drive from Iman Khomeini International Airport shows Michael Owen advertising watches. Axis of evil? There’s a Debenhams.

Pouring with passion

And somewhere in this odd, welcoming, traffic-clogged city runs a hot-headed conflict: the reds of Persepolis and the blues of Esteghlal. Derby day is unlike any other in the sporting calendar. Twenty-four hours before the game, over a cup of sugary tea in a carpet shop in Tehran’s teeming bazaar, I meet with Hussein. He’s a red. 

Lots of Persepolis fans don’t care about anything except beating Esteghlal. Crazy things happen when we play them: riots, match-fixing, fighting...

- Persepolis fan Hussein

“What you need to understand is that lots of Persepolis fans don’t care about anything except beating Esteghlal,” he says. He has a habit of laying his palm across his breast when he talks about Persepolis. “We could be mid-table or lower, but if we win the derby they’ll be happy.

"Crazy things happen when we play Esteghlal. Riots, match-fixing, fighting. You know the government get scared by the passion of the fans? These days they only allow 95,000 to attend.” Right. Only?

Police separate the two sets of fans

The tale of the derby is tied up in the tale of the country. A quick history recap: in the middle part of the 20th Century, Iran was governed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a dapper monarch fond of social reform and lavish living. Tourists were drawn to Tehran’s bars and discos, while the shah’s enemies (of which there were many, both secular and religious) saw him as a wasteful puppet of the West.

Things came to an epoch-changing head in 1979, when spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini tapped into public sentiment and spearheaded a now infamous revolution. The shah fled; the country became the world’s first Islamic Republic. The 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution has just been celebrated.   

Ayatollah Khomeini was the figurehead of the 1979 revolution

NEXT: How the teams reflect Iran's divisions