Rivalries are the lifeblood of football. Whether it be social class issues, religious disputes or battles for the power of the city, these matches define the game. Studies on football fans have shifted focus away from ‘exceptional fans’ to the study of ‘every day fans’ and their experiences. The traditional view of rivalries was how the exceptional, hooligan-like fans would go toe-to-toe and fight for the right to be proud of their team. Really, what makes football rivalries different from any other game is that it is a war between the every-day, working people – not the higher or upper classes of the society within the fanbases, but the whole fanbase. It is not the fans who go to the ground for a fight, but the calm fans who sit in the quiet section of the main stand, who stand up for one game only to launch scaling attacks on the opposition that they despise for social, historical or cultural reasons. The Iran derby – Esteghlal v Persepolis – is this notion in a nutshell. Like many other derbies in the world, the Tehran derby is more than a match worth three points; it’s about politics, power and pride of a city.

Back in the UK, derby day between two football giants is one of the most eagerly anticipated days in the calendar – the first fixture fans look for when they get released in July. Take the Merseyside derby, for example: the office jokes in the workplace – probably evenly split red and blue – are orientated around the big match, in excitement for the weekend clash. No matter the form going into the match, the timeless cliché that suggests that form goes ‘out of the window’ for these matches rings true. The nerves and excitement on the eve of derby day are similar to the day before starting a new job: anxious to the point that it doesn’t leave the mind for longer than a minute, but excitement beyond belief. For the week that follows, the supporters of the team that loses will leave his desk only for necessities, to avoid the embarrassment or humiliation of facing their colleague who follows the other team.

In Iran, it’s a little bit different. The essence is similar, but it is much more than football. While the culture of derby day may seem feisty in the UK, it doesn’t compete with Tehran.

The biggest derby in Iran is the Tehran derby, between Esteghlal and Persepolis. So important is this city derby in the Iran capital that businesses close down on the day of the game. Everyone everywhere watches the clock until it’s time for kick off. In the UK, when a game is lost, people accept the result and move on, but in Tehran, everything changes. The Tehran derby is about politics and power, it cuts through religion, it can cut through families and be the reason for many relationships to be forged or broken – though, realistically, relationships with opposition fans are hardly forged anyway.

When you think of football rivalries, some are quite obvious: El Clásico springs immediately to mind. Obviously, in football terms, Barça v Madrid trumps Esteghlal v Persepolis, but off the pitch, it’s not so obvious. There are no mathematical formulae to determine how big a rivalry is, but one man could potentially give an honest answer on the question of El Clásico or Tehran derby: Carlos Queiroz.

I didn’t know that the Iranians are so passionate about the game. I was completely surprised when I saw Azadi stadium with 90,000 people there to see a league game”, said the coach of Team Melli after one year as head coach. He didn’t actually pick one definitively, which suggests that the Tehran derby is globally one of the best. But what makes it so special?

Abì-t e ya ghermèze-t e? Are you blue or red? The Tehran duel is known locally as the Surkhabi derby and is commonly known as one of, if not the biggest in Asia, between the blue of Esteghlal and the red of Persepolis. Most rivalries have a long history, and for most, you can find some black and white footage that explain the origins of the derby, be it religion, politics or just general dislike. The Tehran derby is different in this respect.

Origins, development and how it has grown Iranian football from the ground

The establishing of the two clubs could not be further apart.

Esteghlal were founded in September 1945 as Docharkhe Savaran and was initially a cycling club. At the close of World War Two, three army officers formed ‘The Cyclists’. A lot has changed since then, but the theme of cycling has remained, and can be seen today in the logo of Esteghlal , with three wheel-like shapes. At the end of Esteghlal’s second season, they won the Tehran Hazfi Cup and finished as runners-up in the Tehran League, which at that stage was the pre-eminent league in the country. The team has had numerous names, and spent a large period under the name of ‘Taj’, which means ‘crown’, so they were admired by the monarchy. After a revolution in 1979, the club was renamed as Esteghlal, which means ‘independence’.

Persepolis, on the other hand, were formed via the dissolution of Shahin. The boxer and son of a high-ranked diplomat, Ali Abdo, returned from the United States and formed Persepolis. He wanted to create a multi-sport society, but faced a tough challenge as Shahin FC boasted the best players and had all the fans. Shahin were dissolved for political reasons, by the Iran Sports Organization acting on behest of the Iran Football Federation. The dissolution helped Persepolis to become the most famous team of Iran, because nearly all of their players came from Shahin. The name derives from the Greek ‘Perses’ (Persian) and ‘polis’ (city) – an ode to Alexander the Great. In January 330, Alexander reached Persepolis, the capital of the Archaemenid Empire. When Alexander the Great arrived at Persepolis it was the jewel of Persia. When he left, it was a ruin whose spot would be known for generations only as ‘the place of the forty columns’ for the remaining palace columns were left standing in the sand.

The first meeting between the teams took place on April 5, 1968 at Amjadieh Stadium, with the game finishing goalless. In the years that followed, Persepolis became known as the working class club, while Esteghlal’s link with the crown was viewed as a club close to the ruling establishment that was supported by the upper class of Iranian society. At a time where politics was so rife in the country, the rivalry grew and physical fights and protests – between both players and fans – were not uncommon.

In February 1970, the score was 1-0 in favour of Taj until the 82nd minute when the Persepolis players left the field to protest against the match officials. The game was awarded as a 3-0 win to Taj. A year later, the game was all-square at 1-1 until the 75th minute when the Persepolis players departed the field to protest against poor refereeing. Like a year earlier, the football federations declared Taj as 3-0 winners.

Wrestling is still the most traditional sport in Iran and until the 1970s it was far more popular. The history of Iranian football has been intimately intertwined with politics, both domestic and international. The national sport in Iran is wrestling, but their first place in the 1998 World Championships, held in Tehran, caused far less excitement in the country than their participation in the 1998 Football World Cup. Almost every institution within civil and political society attempts to impose its own agenda on football, and the game has been a highly charged arena where contending factors carry out a curious war.

While football itself has developed, the political problems remain. Around 100 women were in the Tehran Stadium in October this year to watch a friendly match between Iran and Bolivia. Why is this relevant, you may ask? Not for 37 years had women been allowed to enter stadia, after the Islamic government that seized power banned them in the late 1970s.

Gianni Infantino spoke in Tehran about this recently. He attended the derby between the Tehran teams in March, but a number of female fans were refused entry to the ground and some were arrested by uniformed police. As FIFA President, Infantino is working against this discrimination. Awkwardly, Infantino was taken off air when a journalist asked when women would be allowed to attend matches.

Nowadays, the game is contested in the cauldron of atmosphere known as the Azadi Stadium. The stadium has boasted attendances well over 100,000, with 128,000 people being recorded in attendance in an international fixture between Iran and Australia – a 1998 World Cup qualifier. During the last match between the two clubs, social media was abuzz with pictures of the stadium packed almost five hours before kick off.

The Tehran derby is evidently politically driven and gives rise to the term used in Iran – ‘soccer revolution’. That’s why the match divides through families and cultural beliefs on derby day.

Tales from the Azadi Stadium

Such is the hostility of the derby, one may think that it is generally contested between Iranians and Iranians only. This is not the case.

Irish national Éamon Zayed, who spoke no more than a couple of words in the native language, stepped on to the field with ten minutes to go in the Tehran Derby. His side, Persepolis, were 2-0 down against their fierce rivals, and it felt like his substitution was more of a case of making a substitution for the sake of it, rather than a throw of the dice. If it was a throw, it was a punt of ginormous standards.

Zayed was an unknown quantity, a nobody in football, with a career path weird enough for all the lists of strange journeymen-like careers. But ten minutes later, he was an Iranian football icon. Within just ten minutes he went from zero to hero.

His first goal was more of a ‘hit-and-hope’ ball outside the defender, but Zayed latched on to it and without even taking a touch to control, he caressed the ball past the on-rushing goalkeeper, with his side foot – the sort of goal Thierry Henry would be proud of. The celebrations were muted, but Zayed would’ve been pleased to just be off the mark. Minutes later, he had another, a looping cross was met by Zayed who hung in the air before heading into the ground, making it impossible for the goalkeeper to save. Persepolis were dead and buried five minutes ago, but now, they were level, through an unknown Irishman plying his trade in the Iranian top flight.

The dream didn’t stop there. Zayed made it three, and this goal was the best of the bunch. A low ball came in from the left of the box, but Zayed surely couldn’t wriggle a chance from here; he had two defenders either side of him. The Irishman took a touch to kill the ball dead, span round and finessed his shot into the bottom corner to fire Persepolis into the lead in the dying seconds.

Éamon Zayed was embraced and greeted from all directions, by players, coaches and a few fans. The Azadi Stadium was in delirium, to watch Zayed write his name into Iranian football folklore forever.

A few days later, Zayed spoke to Irish Times about his experiences at his first match in Iran:

At the stadium the whole place went mad, I’ve never seen anything like it. And then on the bus afterwards all the players were coming up, hugging and kissing me, telling me I didn’t realise what I’d done. Then, when I got back to the hotel there was a wedding on and the people wanted me to join them as a special guest. An old man offered me $100, he told me how grateful he was and that he wanted to give me a gift. And this being Iran, it wasn’t the drink talking.

There have been moments in Zayed’s life where, if they were pitched as scenes of a movie, they would be dismissed as too elaborate and far-fetched. The Irishman, who had failed stints at Bray Wanderers, Crewe Alexandra, Drogheda United, Sporting Fingal and Derry City, somehow became a legend of Iranian football, or at least for the red of Persepolis.

The tales from the Azadi Stadium don’t stop at just great goals, however. There have often been times where violence between players and between fans have led to big issues on and off the pitch.

In the 49th derby, in December 2000, came the worst episode of violence. Esteghlal goalkeeper Parviz Broumand and Persepolis forward Payan Rafat had been exchanging words all game, but it escalated when Broumand launched a punch on Rafat. This sparked a mass brawl between the players, and three were arrested. The violence spread off the pitch to the streets after the game, where mass brawls continued between the fans. Hooligans destroyed 250 buses and smashed a lot of shops around the area.

Almost every clash between the teams comes with controversy, and recently, Esteghlal president Ali Fatollah Zahed claimed that his team could have won a 1999 derby as a result of two Persepolis players seeing red cards, but the authorities told them not to score to prevent violence.

More such scandals have taken place. The 1999 Hazfi Cup final featuring the two teams took place just days after student protests lead to multiple deaths and over a thousand arrests in the city. IFF president at the time, Mohsen Farahani, was asked to have the match end in a draw to prevent violence. This was not possible, with it being a cup match, and Persepolis won the game.

To avoid potential problems with referees, foreign officials have been employed to take control of the game and avoid outside influences in recent decades

The last Tehran derby, in September 2018, ended goalless. In the history of the derby, there have been 41 draws in 89 games, which is probably worth looking into. Much like many cup finals, managers and players have so much pressure not to lose that avoiding losses has become more important than winning; so many derbies have ended in draws.

The future of the derby is unclear, with the stance on women’s football in Iran set to change in the near future. Recently, the two squads have had dinner together the night before the match, in order to facilitate fair play and prevent new episodes of violence.

It may not be the glamorous spectacle of the Clásico, where you have to be an elite-level footballer to take part, which is telling in the Crewe Alexandra flop who became Persepolis hero Éamon Zayed, But it is certainly one of the best derbies in world football, and one that should be on all football fans bucket lists – although it might be hard to get a ticket, such is the demand in Tehran.