You may think the attention in Iran this weekend will be focused squarely on the backroom happenings in Vienna, where Iranian and Western diplomats are wrangling over the Islamic Republic's controversial nuclear program. But you would be wrong.
On Sunday, millions of Iranians -- perhaps even as much as one-quarter of the country's population -- will tune in to watch the soccer match betweenPersepolis and Esteghlal, the country's two biggest clubs. Both are based in Tehran, and the city's main Azadi Stadium will be packed to its 80,000 capacity, divided between the red of Persepolis and the blue of Esteghlal.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the country and the fervor that surrounds these clubs -- as well as the rivalry between them -- is legendary.
In many parts of the soccer world, matches between local rivals – known colloquially as “derbies” – often inhabit a narrative that is larger than just the game. When Glasgow’s Celtic plays Rangers, decades of sectarian tensions between Protestants and Catholics in the British Isles echo on the field. When Boca Juniors takes on River Plate in Argentina, it’s a clash between the rough-and-tumble of the city’s industrial docks and the more posh middle-class suburbs. When Mohun Bagan, Asia’s oldest soccer club, plays East Bengal in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, the memory of the subcontinent’s division splits the fans.
In the case of the Tehran derby, both of the teams have histories that stretch far beyond the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Esteghlal was formerly known as Taj, or “crown,” and was seen as an institution close to the Iranian monarchy. Once the shah was unseated, the new government had the club’s name changed to Esteghlal, which means “independence” in Persian.
Persepolis, Iran’s most successful soccer club, derives its name from the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, a city that Alexander the Great set aflame more than 2,000 years ago. Its famous ruins are a source of national prestige. The club has a more working class character, but also fell afoul of the new regime in 1979, which tried, but failed, to change its name to Azadi, or “freedom.”
These days, the clubs are both government owned and boast numerous prominent devotees, not to mention fan bases numbering in the millions around the country. Former Iranian president Mohamad Khatami is a Persepolis supporter; Hossein Khomeini, a politician whose grandfather founded the Islamic Republic, is known to back Esteghlal.
That doesn’t mean there’s much good will between the two sides. Persepolis supporters still chant the score of their most lop-sided victory over their main rivals—when they beat the club then known as Taj 6 - 0 in 1973. It’s a sign of the intensity of the clash that the memory of a game played more than four decades ago, under a totally different regime, still animates proceedings today.
Esteghlal fans, meanwhile, mock their opponents by pointing out that they have won four straight victories over Persepolis.
The threat of hooliganism hangs over the Tehran derby. In 2000, after punches were exchanged on the field, tensions spread to the stands and then to a full-blown street riot outside the stadium. Some 250 buses were destroyed, according to Bloomberg.
That sort of chaos is an obvious concern for the mullahs, who would never let dissidents convene on the same scale as sports fans. “Soccer poses an opportunity and a threat to a non-democratic regime,” says James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East soccer politics, in an interview with Bloomberg. “Soccer can easily become a platform for protest because the emotions it evokes are tribal.”
To that end, the clubs have been kept under the firm hand by the government – the directors of both are former generals of the Revolutionary Guards – and suspicions get frequently aroused whenever the two teams play out to a draw, the result that best keeps the peace.
The presence of women at the matches could perhaps quieten hostilities, but women are barred from attending male sports events, and face arrest if they do. But, as the 2006 Iranian film “Offside” makes clear, that doesn’t mean they’re any less passionate about the game than men.