Iran football rivalry erupts as crowds chant 'Death to the dictator'

Iran football rivalry erupts as crowds chant 'Death to the dictator'
As many as 100,000 fans crowded into the Tabriz stadium to enjoy one of the biggest derbies of Iran's league, reports Uri Levy.
4 min read
20 Feb, 2019
Tractor Sazi Tabriz defeated Iranian rivals Esteghlal 1-0 [Corbis]
A football stadium is often the best place to express pent-up feelings and emotions.

This weekend around 100,000 fans gathered at Yadegar-e Emam Stadium in Tabriz, Iran, for one of the most boiling hot matches in the Iranian Persian Gulf League - Tractor Sazi against Esteghlal Tehran.

Besides the extraordinary atmosphere and sight of the rare huge crowd, the clash was about more than just a football game between the fourth- and fifth-ranked teams in Iran.

Tractor Sazi Tabriz is one of the most special clubs in the country, and in the past season, also one of the most controversial.

Coming from the biggest city in northwestern Iran, from East Azerbaijan province, Tractor represents the Azerbaijani-Turkish minority in the country. The fans make a big deal of their Azeri and Turkish heritage, as well as their anti-regime stance.

Esteghlal, meanwhile, is generally seen as "the regime's team". The club was formerly named Taj ["crown"] and identified with the former monarch - the shah - before the Islamic revolution; since the 1980s the club has been called Esteghlal - "independence".

In the most recent match between the pair, at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran at the start of the season, Tractor fans sang "Death to the dictator!" - a chant widely used during the latest round of Iranian protests against the current ruler, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic.

The football stadium is one of the only places fans can express their feelings and identity without overbearing fears of arrest - or worse.
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With all of this in the background, Tractor and Esteghlal have built one of the most fierce rivalries in the league, matching that of Persepolis and Esteghlal in the Tehran derby.

And this season, Tractor is on top form, making the competition with Esteghlal all the more intense.

Tractor is owned by Mohamed Reza Zonouzi, a local billionaire who aspires to take over Iranian football, and has signed 22 new players since the past summer.

A serious cast was of names landed one after another in Tabriz, with Iran's national team captains - Masoud Shoajei, Ashkan Dejagah and Ehsan Hajsafi - being the marquee signings and a list of UK and Irish-origin players, including Anthony Stokes, after Lee Erwin and Harry Forrester parted ways with the club. 

Welshman John Toshack started the season as manager, but was later sacked and replaced by Belgian Georges Leekens.

The stadium on Saturday was packed with fans, with no reports of women entries to such a high-profile match recorded in Iranian media.

Ashkan Dejagah, the captain of Team Melli in the Asian Cup, scored the only goal in the match, as Tractor won 1-0. The Tabriz club has now closed the gap to the league's leading trio of Persepolis, Saipa and Padideh Khorasan. 

Asian Champions League

The Asian Champions League's final round of qualifiers was played on Tuesday, with Middle Eastern teams in some thrilling encounters to form the groups in the next stage of the tournament's 2019 edition.

Al-Nasr Dubai managed to lose to Uzbek team Pakhtakor at Al-Maktoum Stadium, with the visitors producing a quality display beyond the grasp of the Emiratis, even with a late penalty by Alvaro Negredo for the hosts.

Al-Nassr, from Jeddah, demolished Olmaliq - the second Uzbek team to reach this stage - in a 4-0 hammering that completed a full house with all four Saudi megaclubs - Ittihad, Al-Hilal, Al-Ahli and Al-Nassr - through to the group stage. 

Qatar's Al-Rayyan were trailing at home to Saipa from Iran, but made a comeback thanks to a pair of veteran naturalised Qataris - Rodrigo Tabata and Sebastian Soria - with Venezuelan striker Gelmin Rivas adding to the scoreboard to win the match 3-1.

Finally, the most interesting match took part at Thani bin Jassim Stadium in Doha, where Qatar's Al-Gharafa played Iran's Zob Ahan.

Ahmed Alaa Aldin scored the first and Mehdi Taremi notched a second in what looked like an easy Qatari qualification. But everything changed in the second half. Nigerian striker Ighodaro Osaguona scored for Zob Ahan, Amir Motahari added another and Mohamed Nejadmahdi completed a perfect and unexpected comeback. A shocking 3-2 for Zob Ahan Isfahan, who go on to play in the Asian Champions League group stage for the fourth year in a row.

The full draw for the West Asian division of the 2019 AFC Champions League:

Group A: Al-Wasl (UAE), Al-Zawraa (Iraq), Zob Ahan (Iran), Al-Nassr (Saudi Arabia)

Group B: Al-Ittihad (Saudi Arabia), Al-Wahda (UAE), Lokomotiv (Uzbekistan), Al-Rayyan (Qatar)

Group C: Al-Duhail (Qatar), Al-Hilal (Saudi Arabia), Al-Ain (UAE), Esteghlal (Iran)

Group D: Persepolis (Iran), Al-Sadd (Qatar), Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia), Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan)

Uri Levy runs the popular football blog BabaGol, which covers football and politics focusing on the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter, and read his blog here.