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

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The contest is nicely poised for drama. Going into the derby, Esteghlal lead the table on 52 points; Persepolis is third on 43. Both have nine games remaining. If Persepolis is serious about retaining its title, and if it wants to rely on any sort of winning momentum for the run-in, this is the day to make it happen.

“Would I prefer to win the league or to beat Esteghlal? That’s hard,” ponders Amin, a middle-aged Persepolis fan whose first derby was in the 1970s. He remembers watching Liverpool-born midfielder Alan Whittle, who spent a season with Persepolis just before the revolution. “That’s really hard. When I was younger I would have said to beat Esteghlal. The dream now is always to combine both.”

First impressions of the stadium at capacity are breathtaking. If sitting around for eight hours has taken its toll on the fans, it doesn’t show. Thirty minutes before kickoff, the noise has swelled to an urgent medley of drums, horns and chanting. The panorama is split into swathes of red and blue. Persepolis fans outgun their opposite numbers by around three to two, but both sets of supporters are running their vocal cords raw.

The sun is hot now. There are flags everywhere. There are whistles everywhere. There are police everywhere. High above, soldiers stand at intervals around the entire rim of the ground while giant photos of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei preside over the whole scene. A few people perform quiet lunchtime prayers on the stadium’s outside walkway. It is a big, big ground. 

Azadi stadium

Songs of praise (and hatred)

When the teams come out it is into a bowl of color, clamor and tension. The referee looks assured. There’s a prayer, a national anthem, then the match gets underway. The stands are hung with long banners. Persepolis fans unfurl a huge flag emblazoned with the legend “The Imams Are Helping Us.”

Another reads “The Blues Are Our Servants.” On the other side of the stadium, meanwhile, the sun beats down on “Praise Be To The God That Created Esteghlal” and “Every Heart Loves Esteghlal.”

But if the painted slogans bear a kind of stirring poetry, the chants ringing around the stadium have an edgier flavor. Alireza Nikbakht, a former blue now playing for Persepolis, is greeted with a ditty that translates roughly as “The dicks of all the Esteghlal fans in Nikbakht’s mother.”

Persepolis fans respond with “Esteghlal only win trophies by giving arse.” Torki, meanwhile, attracts the nothing-if-not-creative “The exhaust pipe of an eighteen-wheeler lorry up the backside of the referee.” Charmed all round. 

Referee Torki attracts the nothing-if-not-creative chant “The exhaust pipe of an eighteen-wheeler lorry up the backside of the referee”

The first half, speaking frankly, doesn’t match the billing. Obvious nerves make it a turgid affair, brightened only by a few flashes from Persepolis playmaker Ali Karimi. The crowd have become eerily muted. Halftime entertainment comes courtesy of a man in a suede jacket singing “Peace Be Upon The Martyrs Of The Revolution.”

Then, in the 56th minute, bedlam. Esteghlal break down the left, the ball is slipped to Iranian international Mojtaba Jabari and a first-time shot squeezes inside the post. The blue half of the Azadi explodes. 

The next half-hour is fiery stuff. Fans barrack the referee, the players and each other. The Persepolis support become increasingly jittery – they’ve been here all day and want a result to show for it. With minutes to go, Esteghlal striker Siavash Akbarpour is presented with a simple one-on-one. It should be game over. He skies it.

And as the clock rolls into injury time and desperation sets in, a Persepolis corner finds Karimi’s head, which in turn finds the outstretched hand of Esteghlal’s Ali Alizadeh, substituted on minutes earlier. It is a plum penalty. The referee has no option. It is slotted home and the final whistle blows. For the fifth time running, the Tehran derby ends a goal apiece.       

Police arrest a fan after the game

The flags left flying are red. Esteghlal fans begin ripping up seats and hurling them onto the pitch. Police rush sections of the crowd to calm them and, inevitably, skirmishes spill outside. While the vast majority of fans restrict their emotions to vocal expression, there are numerous arrests for violence (as many as 100, according to the next day’s press).

“We want football, not politics,” goes up a chant. On the main road back into town, groups of youths on scooters square up to each other. In the eyes of the fans pouring home – particularly the blues – there seems little doubt they’ve been had. 

There’s always a late equalizer in the derby. A guy comes on and two minutes later there’s a handball like that? And the missed one-on-one? There was a lot of trouble after the last match that didn’t finish drawn, so for me, yes, it’s arranged.”

- PersianFootball.com writer Salar Vafaian

The media fall-out begins in force the next day. Almost all papers splash with a photo of the handball, and headlines are accusatory. Iran Varzeshi leads with “The gift – a bouquet of flowers from Ali Alizadeh.” Donya Futbol reads, “Alizadeh: the special envoy for the derby,” and Navad says simply, “Inevitable.” So was it pre-arranged?

“To my mind, yes,” says Salar Vafaian, a writer for PersianFootball.com. “There’s always a late equalizer in the derby. I mean, a guy comes on and two minutes later there’s a handball like that? And the missed one-on-one? Akbarpour’s usually a good finisher. There was a lot of trouble after the last match that didn’t finish drawn, so for me, yes, it’s arranged.” 

Not everyone agrees, of course – the papers are full of managers and players denying any funny business and internet message boards are split between those angrily denouncing a “clown show” and those who feel a fix sounds too far-fetched.

I meet again with Saeed, the philosophical Esteghlal fan, the day after the game. Looking down at the front pages on the newsstands, he gives the final word. “The derby’s bigger than the result. If it’s being arranged, that’s terrible for the league and for the country.

"But I like to think it’s honest. The passion of the fans won’t go away, the derby won’t go away. I guarantee that next season, early morning, we’ll all be back. It’s too big.” 

This feature originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!