Unusually, considering the teams are competitive rivals, they share the 90,000 capacity, Azadi Stadium in the western outskirts of the city. Arriving at the stadium we are promptly separated from the blue flag waving Esteghlal fans who are directed to the other end of the pitch. The stadium looks like it is over capacity with thousands of people standing in the walkways around the top of the arena; from here the red/blue split is glaringly obvious.
Traditionally Persepolis was seen as a working class club whilst Esteghlal had close ties to the ruling establishment and was supported by the upper class of Iranian society. During the 70’s Persepolis was much more popular, now the fan base for each team is split fairly equally, although on derby day the percentage looks slightly in favour of Persepolis.
One Persepolis fan, to the jubilation of the crowd around us, takes a blue Esteghlal flag and with some derogatory chanting (probably about Esteghlal’s 6-0 defeat in 1973) promptly rips it up and stamps on it. Thankfully a fairly large buffer zone and riot police are keeping the two factions apart.
The fixtures reputation comes from it’s tarnished past; in 1995 angry Persepolis fans stormed the pitch after Esteghlal scored 2 goals in quick succession, one as a result of an apparently biased referee decision. Many fights broke out between fans and players. From this game onwards international referees were used.
In 2000, Esteghlal’s goalkeeper punched a Persepolis player in the face; a massive fight broke out on the pitch and after the game match hooligans rampaged through the streets completely destroying 250 city buses.
During the mid 2000’s the game was plagued with match-fixing accusations. The speculations climaxed after a very deliberate looking handball in stoppage time in 2009 resulted in one of six 1-1 draws in a row. The allegations were not helped by the fact that the same person owned both teams. Due to previous violence many believed match fixing was being used by the authorities to keep the peace between the fans. From this game onwards Iranian referees were used again, implying international refs couldn’t be trusted.
When the Persepolis players took to the pitch they immediately started to work the already feverish fans into a frenzy by throwing their tracksuits into the crowd. Sat amongst the 45,000 charged-up, tea-drinking, sunflower seed eating, hooter-blowing Persepolis fans it’s easy to get caught up in the passion.
Before the game a huge Number 24 shirt was held aloft by the fans, the name ‘NOROUZI’ emblazoned across the shoulders. Just a month earlier, Hadi Norouzi (#24), the Persepolis captain died of a heart attack in his sleep. As a sign of respect for the duration of the 24th minute of the game all the Persepolis, and some Esteghlal, fans chanted his name.
The first half was fairly uneventful and finished 0-0. During the interval the supporters around me discovered I’m English and started shouting the names of English players at me, interspersed with the odd cry of “Englistan I love you” and numerous ‘thumbs-up’. Annoyingly and much to my amusement being a City supporter, the name-calling culminated in a chanting of a chorus of “David Beckham, David Beckham, David Beckham” by about 20 Iranians.
Four minutes into the second half and Esteghlal score the first goal and the blue end of the stadium erupts into chanting and cheering that lasts for about 10 minutes whilst the red supporters at our end of the arena sink quietly back into their seats.
10 minutes later the heavens open and the second half of this damp Red-Blue Derby is all too familiar. This match could easily be Man City vs. Man United or Liverpool vs. Everton, the only difference being there are absolutely no women in this stadium, if there were, they probably would have bought umbrellas.
Towards the end of the second half someone from the Persepolis crowd throws what I can only describe as a stick of dynamite onto the side of the pitch, the resulting explosion shook the concrete stands and reverberated through the stadium whilst the massive cloud of smoke gently floated up. The large detonation marks the introduction of more riot police around the base of the stands.
In the 95th minute after a relentless, but futile attempt by Persepolis to equalise we start making our way to the gates to beat the crowds. In some kind of Manchester United-esq stroke of luck the ball ends up in the back of the net in the 96th minute and Persepolis equalise. The stadium goes mental and for once I’m happy the reds have managed to sneak in a cheeky goal in extra time!