PRINCES OF PERSIA – Tension and troubles in the Tehran Derby

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Updated: September 28, 2013

Photo: Mohammad Hassanzadeg

The Tehran derby (locally known as the Surkhabi Derby) is a fiercely competitive fixture between two of Iran’s biggest teams, Esteghlal and Persepolis. Despite there being several other teams based in the Iranian capital, it is this fixture which is considered to be the most vociferous, World soccer Magazine named it Asia’s most important derby in 2008. Since the first fixture the two teams have faced off 76 times with Esteghlal winning 24 and Persepolis 18.

Of the two clubs Esteghlal are the oldest, founded in 1945. Originally known as Docharkheh Savaran, they were less of a football club and more of an all encompassing sports franchise focussing specifically on cycling. From 1949 they changed their name to Taj and the emphasis changed more towards football and success quickly came, culminating in the 1970 AFC Asian Club Championship (now known as the AFC Champions League). Several league and cup titles have followed as well as a second continental championship in 1991.

Persepolis have faced more of a struggle in their rise to prominence. Founded as late as 1963, they floundered in the lower leagues until 1967 when they acquired several players from the newly defunct Sahin club. They also inherited former Sahin supporters as a ready made fanbase and quickly become a force within Iranian football. Persepolis have won nine league championships, though the Asian Champions League has so far eluded them.

Persepolis is traditionally seen as the club of the Tehran working classes, it is commonly accepted that they have the greater number of supporters than Esteghlal who are seen as the club of the ruling elite. Since their first official meeting in April 1968, relations between the clubs both on and off the pitch have always been fractious.

From the start there have always been suspicions about the biased nature of those who referee the fixture. In 1970 and 1971 Persepolis players walked off the pitch in protest against refereeing decisions and in 1995 in protest at the awarding of a contentious penalty, Persepolis fans stormed onto the pitch with fights breaking out between players and fans alike. This led to a ruling that Iranian referees would no longer be used to officiate the fixture.

On pitch confrontations too have led to fans and perhaps more unbelievably, players too being arrested. In December 2000 at the end of a particularly heated fixture, Esteghlal goalkeeper Parviz Broumand punched Persepolis striker Payan Rafat giving him a black eye. The two players had been arguing all match and the blow led to an on pitch brawl between players who were soon joined by fans. In the ensuing riot 250 buses were damaged as well as local businesses, 60 fans were arrested as well as three players.

The clubs hierarchies have tried in the past to diffuse tensions. The two teams would dine together before matches and there was also talk of a friendly being played in the United Sates. In response to a New Year message by Barack Obama for more cordial relations between Iran and America, Persepolis Manager Abbas Ansarifard said he had approached the Iranian foreign ministry to try and organise a match in America. A private company was willing to sponsor and promote the trip and several US cities such as Los Angeles have significant Iranian populations. The news coincided with the visit of an American wrestling team to Iran and for a while there was genuine support for the idea.

The rivalry itself looks set to continue for a long time yet. Both teams are hugely significant with both their national teams and Asia as a whole. As for who is the bigger of the two, I feel that despite having fewer fans, Esteghlal have the most victories in the fixture as well as the two continental trophies and as such, albeit by the smallest of margins, they are the more successful of the two

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