Editors note: COVID-19 has changed Iran in ways far beyond the sombre statistics, truncating the close family and community interactions that are fundamental to Persian culture. Coming together is in this hospitable country’s DNA. And perhaps the largest release of all, at least for Iran’s men (currently), is attending Tehran’s exhilarating premiere football derby.
Just before the pandemic began, Steve Madgwick immersed himself into the thick of the action, squashed in with upwards of 78 thousands Iranians. With crowds temporarily frozen out of the Big Game, here is a rare retrospective into a very different derby, and a very different Iran.
On any given non-holy-day, Tehran appears to hyperventilate, like it’s trying to wring oxygen from the syrupy atmosphere that its eight-million-plus souls expel and depend on.
Directly north, the snow-heavy Alborz Mountains parentally supervise the slow-motion stampede of ‘development’, humanity and French-made cars with perennial stoicism, indifferent to the urgency of it all.
Not today, however. Today, a year or so before the COVID-19 pandemic would change this scene beyond recognition, as the afternoon shadows stretch, the Iranian capital’s palpitating pace falls into curious flux; goes still, as the city readies itself for what comes next.
It’s Derby Day, when Tehran’s largest soccer clubs, Persepolis F.C. and Esteghlal F.C., clash in Iran’s premier football competition, the Persian Gulf Pro League.
For many, this is a de-facto holy day; although you would be cuckoo to say that in public. Shutters roll down early on carpet and spice stalls in the Grand Bazaar. Clusters of coffee shops in cosmopolitan pockets like inner-city Iranshahr, which frothed with students yesterday, stand dormant after noon, save for top-knotted baristas pecking at phones with their fingertips.
Over at Tehran Fried Chicken, seats overflow with the butts of 20-something-year-old men with sharp haircuts who scoff greasy, gristly lumps without drawing breath. Their eyes scan the streetscape, suspiciously, for opposing colors.
Metro-bound, prides of young supporters cruise down clamorous Karim Khan Zand Boulevard, past the infamous 10-storey ‘Down with the USA’ mural, a revolutionary reinterpretation of the Stars and Stripes, where the stars are skulls and the stripes plummeting bombs. Few of the youngsters register the propagandic relic, painted long before they were born.
Further down, another mural on the edifice of a dystopian gray concrete monstrosity draws their eye—but not their ire. A couple strolls away into its vanishing point; a calm, indeterminate green space. Sick of the pollution and political toxicity owning Tehran’s public spaces, artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo designed around 100 of these murals in the noughties.
Not a single woman will be admitted into the soccer today. It is the law, like it or not. Increasingly, the young generation of both sexes don’t.
“I couldn’t change the big things as a recently graduated artist,” he says. “So I decided to create my Utopian Tehran in which the sky is blue and bright, the clouds are fertile, and people are happy.”
Deep underground, on the walls of Meydan-e Vali Asr metro station, yellow-and-black signs depicting a burka-wearing woman declare that the first and last carriages of the approaching train are strictly women-only. A smiley face with defiant eyes and poked-out tongue has been graffitied onto one of them.
Women are free to travel in the middle carriages unaccompanied. Those who do so seem to wear their head scarves just a centimeter higher up the forehead than elsewhere in Iran. Regardless of adherence to dress-codes, not a single woman will be admitted into the soccer today. It is the law, like it or not. Increasingly, the young generation of both sexes don’t.
It’s standing-room only by the time the 10-cent journey reaches the frontline. The metro doors fling open like starting gates, unleashing a torrent of football fledglings who sprint upstairs next to the escalators, whooping like loons. Naturally, the older fans tut at the bonkers energy of youth.
Above ground, battle ensembles bloom in Persepolis red and Esteghlal blue: Scarves, jerseys, and flags worn as capes. Messi and Beckham find their way onto the back of bootleg merch, too.
Teens try to swipe red or blue paint on fans’ faces on the pilgrimage from the gates of the Azadi Sport Complex to the stadium. It takes dexterity and stubbornness to avoid their brushes and outstretched rial-hungry hands. By pure happenstance, my red shirt and almost perfectly Esteghlal-blue jacket (along with my ruddy complexion) is enough to confuse the hell out of them.
Word on the street is that the 78,000-capacity stadium is sold out—a notoriously fluid concept here. Apparently, they sometimes squeeze in more than 100,000. Box offices are besieged. I writhe my way to a window, but heads shake at me. “Where’s your national ID card?” they ask, clicking tongues. The evolving queue spits me out, ticketless.
You can always find an excuse not to travel to Iran. Your government will tell you to reconsider it; warn you against large gatherings like football derbies. But those who’ve traveled here may tell you different stories.
A deep hullabaloo signals the players are on the pitch. Security forces and fans storm the gates. In one final desperate act, I set a lure for scalpers; I hold a wad of rials in my hand theatrically, seeking eye-contact with loitering petty criminals. And, on cue, just like outside sporting stadiums the world over, a scalper ghosts out of the shadows.
I buy a nosebleed standing-room ticket for VIP-box-seat prices, which Mr. Scalper blames on hyper-inflation fed by US-led sanctions. It’s difficult to bargain when desperation is stamped onto your blushing face. The nosebleed-section offers uninterrupted vistas of the immense roofless concrete crater, a Shah-era architectural swinging-dick.
Fate has made me a Persepolis fan. Scores of uniformed troops in the stand above the halfway line are an exact martial buffer between red and blue. Above them, 30-foot murals of President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reinforce what needs reinforcing. Sweat and unfiltered cigarette smoke gust through the air, punctuated by unmistakable wafts of pot and, occasionally, cheap wine. Just above, a soldier clings to a flagpole, busy squinting at the red and blue ants tussling on the striped green field way below.
A penalty-box dive goes unpunished. Pleas for justice unanswered. Meanwhile, strobing electronic hoardings in exquisite Farsi script sell stuff to people that they don’t need. I buy a Waferado ice cream, the cloying chemical equivalent of unripe bananas, wash it down with tea sweetened by crystallised sugar sticks.
I share my half-square-foot of concrete with super-fan Ali, whose battered Samsung Galaxy phone throbs with the latest Persian dance diddy, barely audible above thousands of vuvuzelas that harmonize into a mosquito choir.
“This is good, yes?” he asks me about 10 times. Ali almost bites through his bottom lip when Esteghlal sprays a shot wide. “Osh-allah,” he bellows, face in hands. He hails number 70, Alipour, as ‘our’ Great Hope. Persepolis scores on the counter-attack. One-nil. Red releases into the atmosphere. Blue freezes in time.
No-one hears the final whistle, except for the ref himself, but we all know that Persepolis rules Tehran supreme, until next Derby Day. The winners will sing their way home, the losers contemplate their existence until real life takes over again tomorrow. Red and blue fans walk out the same exits—a recipe for bloodshed in many a European soccer derby. But the army has nothing to do but people-watch. The only chaos that ensues is that of 100,000-plus people exiting into a barely planned, infrastructure-poor metropolis.
Not a metro station in sight, I am disorientated, momentarily, but the soft, light hand of Persian hospitality lands on my shoulder. Mohammed says he’ll drive me to a station. We chat politics as his car ricochets through the heinous traffic that alternates between gridlock and Grand Theft Auto, not a peep from his young son in the back. He willingly shares how embarrassed he is of his government. I tell him I am of mine, too.
He pit-stops to buy sweets and pastries—his gift to me. It soon becomes apparent that Mohammed is not driving me to the nearest station. He insists on delivering me to my mid-city guesthouse. Later, I Google Mohammed’s neighborhood. Turns out he drove at least an hour out of his way for “his guest”—not a single string attached.
You can always find an excuse not to travel to Iran. Your government will tell you to reconsider it; warn you against large gatherings like football derbies. The commercial media will happily reinforce the nutty-enemy narrative. Your friends might think you’re insane.
But those who’ve traveled here may tell you different stories about a country which undeniably has its challenges, especially if you’re female, but at every turn, subverts the shallow caricatures. The highlight of the Iran’s sporting calendar is just that. A stadium full of people (men, for now) just looking to escape from life for a while. A life that those pulling the strings don’t always make so easy.
Author’s note: The past two derbies (2020 and 2021) between Persepolis F.C. and Esteghlal F.C have been played without spectators. Reportedly, masks were mandatory for personnel and substitute players.