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The History of Soccer in Iran

The History of Soccer in Iran

Clubs & Competitions | International Record | Esteghlal v Pirouzi | Stadiums in Iran | Iranian Players Overseas

Soccer in Iran

The roots of football have been sought in the ancient civilizations of China and South America though not in ancient Iran, where chogan has been played for thousands of years.

The playing field of chogan with a goal post at each end and its general concept of two rival teams trying to score against each other is no different to that of football.

However what is different is that players in chogan compete on horseback using a special stick to run, pass and shoot the ball, a game that is widely known today as polo.

Soccer in Iran dates back to the early 20th century when early British oil prospectors introduced the game to Bakhtiari tribesman in the south-west of the country.

Its first governing body, now known as the Iran Football Federation, was established in 1920 and joined the Asian football confederation (AFC) in 1958 and became a member of FIFA in 1945. However, no major national club competitions were held in Iran until the 1970s.

Clubs & Competitions

Clubs actually began to form in Iran in the 1940s and 50s. Teams such as Sarbaz (Soldier), Toofan (Typhoon), Darayi (Wealth) and Kian (Kings) have not appeared in competitions for many years while major old clubs like the populist Shahin (Eagle) and the royalist Taj (Crown) have undergone many changes.

The school of Shahin founded by the late Dr. Abbas Ekrami, stressed the importance of education alongside football and produced some of the most legendary stars of Iranian football. The club was later dissolved due to a bitter rivalry with Taj which in turn had also produced some of the countrys best players.

The Shahin squad then formed Paikan (Arrow) before laying the foundations of Persepolis, renamed Pirouzi (Victory) after the 1979 revolution, but is still called Persepolis by both supporters and the sports press.

Both Shahin and Paikan were revived during the post revolution years while Taj was renamed Esteghlal (Independence).

The close rivalries between Shahin and Taj in the early years, later evolved into Iran's major derby between the reds of Persepolis and the blues of Taj (later Esteghlal), drawing at times about 120,000 fans to the stadium and ranking amongst worlds top derbies.

Other major clubs in Iran that have league championship titles are Pas and Saipa. During the last several years following the launch of Iran's professional league, clubs from outside Tehran like Sepahan from Isfahan and Foolad from the talent rich Khuzestan province have also won Iran's premier league championship title. On the continental front, Taj (1970) and later Esteghlal (1990), Persepolis (1990) and Pas (1992) have all been crowned as the Asian club champions.

The first Takht-e Jamshid Cup, named after the ancient ruins of Persepolis, was held in 1970 and, fittingly, was won by the Tehran club, Persepolis (renamed Pirouzi after 1979). The league was held annually until it had to be abandoned in mid-tournament in 1978 due to the Iranian Revolution.

An eight-year war with Iraq and political upheavals left Iran without major club competitions until 1989 when the Qods League was established. A year later, the Qods League was renamed the Azadegan League after the prisoners of war freed after the conflict with Iraq. The Azadegan League was dominated by teams from Tehran, especially Esteghlal and Pirouzi.

The 2000-2001 season saw the establishment of the Iranian Premier League (IPL), Iran's first professional football league. In the period since its foundation, players salaries have risen and teams from outside Tehran such as Foulad, Sepahan, Zobahan, have shown that they can compete with the best that the capital has to offer.

Iran, with a population of 68 million, now has an estimated 50 million football fans. With an increasingly professional domestic league and a steadily gathering international presence, Iranian football is on an upward curve.

Iran's International Track Record

Iran score against Scotland at the 1978 World Cup.

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran's national team - called team melli by Iranians - had already made its mark on the international scene by winning the Asian Cup 3 times in a row in 1968, 1972 and 1976. The national side has also won the Asian Games football title four times in 1974, 1990, 1998, and 2002.

Iran soon got their first taste of World Cup action - qualifying for the 1978 tournament, where they were defeated by the Netherlands (3-0) and Peru (4-1, Hassan Rowshan scored for Iran). Sandwiched betweeen these defeats, Iran managed to seal a shock 1-1 draw with Scotland, after a late goal by Iraj Danaeifard (the goal registered for Scotland was actually scored by the Iranian defender, Eskandarian, attempting to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper!)

During the 1980s, the Iranian national team did not feature in World Cup competitions due to the war with Iraq (1980-88) and domestic football suffered the inevitable effects of conflict. However, the renaissance came in the early 1990s. Despite failing to qualify for either the 1990 or the 1994 World Cups, it was during this period that a number of quality players burst onto the Iranian football scene, laying the foundation for their second stab at World Cup glory in 1998.

After edging past Australia on the away goals rule to qualify for the finals, Iran were drawn in the same group as Yugoslavia, Germany and, most notably, the USA. It was certainly a tough group, and no one could fail to appreciate its political significance.

Iran played well against Yugoslavia only conceding a goal from a free kick from outside the box not covered properly by reserve keeper, Nakisa, losing one-nil.

In their second match, with rivals USA, Iran won 2-1 scoring two memorable goals from Esteeli and Mahdavikia in a match where both USA and Iran were unfortunate a number of times with both sides hitting the woodwork!

But after their momentous victory came a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Germany which dashed Iran's hopes of qualification for the next round.

Iran failed to qualify for World Cup 2002 after a disappointing playoff performance against the Republic of Ireland (losing 2-0 in Dublin and wining 1-0 in Tehran) which saw Croatian manager Miroslav Blazevic step down from the top spot to be replaced by his assistant Branko Ivancovic, who stepped up from assistant coach.

Iran became, along with Japan, the first team to qualify for the 2006 tournament, in a group alongside Bahrain and North Korea. Iran's World Cup Group will include Mexico, Angola and Portugal.

Iranian soccer was hit hard by the Iran-Iraq war which inflicted sever blows on the nations youth. However, since then, a dramatic increase in population has ushered in a new era of football fanaticism. Currently 70% of Iran's population is under 30 years old, creating a wealth of playing talent and a huge fan base.

International friendly matches at Tehran's Azadi stadium regularly draw crowds of over 100,000 fanatical supporters.

Iranian fans are brought up on a diet of Premiership, La Liga and especially Bundesliga football. The success of a number of Iranian players in Germany such as Vahid Hashemian and Ali Karimi has encouraged football fans to turn their attention abroad.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that Iranian football fans are growing more discerning in their tastes. A recent friendly match with Togo drew a crowd of only 1,000 fans. Since the match was held on a weekday and Togo a little known footballing name, few supporters took the trouble to attend.

Failure to qualify for World Cup 2002 was seen by many as just another example of Iran not being able to take its rightful place on the world stage, though Iran have qualified for World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

The great rivalry: Esteghlal v Pirouzi

Of all the teams in the IPL, it is the two giants from the capital, Esteghlal and Pirouzi, that arouse the greatest passions.

Theirs is the classic Reds (Pirouzi) vs. Blues (Esteghlal) rivalry and matches between the two teams are closely followed by legions of fans.

The two teams share Tehran's massive 100,000 capacity Azadi Stadium and derby fixtures are consistently sold out.

According to the Asian Football Confederation, Pirouzi has the largest number of fans following one team in the whole of Asia.

Stadiums & Media in Iran

Iran's major stadiums are:

  • the 100,000 capacity Azadi (Freedom) sports complex in Tehran, built for the 1974 Asian games in Tehran and originally called Aryamehr
  • the 50,000 (to be 70,000 capacity) Naqshe Jahan (Face of the World) stadium in Isfahan
  • the 70,000 capacity Tabriz stadium
  • the 50,000 (to be 70,00 ) capacity Mashad stadium
  • most other cities in Iran have 20-30,000 capacity stadiums.

With the publication of more than ten sports dailies, sports publications in Iran enjoy a vast readership of a young, growing population, placing Iran amongst countries with the highest number of sports dailies in the world.

Lack of copyright laws protecting club merchandising together with current laws barring the launch of private independent TV networks - that could buy the TV rights for live telecasts of club matches - are the major economic obstacles for Iranian clubs and the growth of the nations football as a whole.

Sahand Stadium, Tabriz, Iran

Sahand Stadium (Yadegar-e-Emam Stadium), home of Tractor Sazi F.C in Tabriz

Some Iranian Players Who Have Played Overseas

Ali Daie - Arminia Biefeld (Germany) >> Bayern Munich >> Hertha Berlin >> Saba Battery (Tehran)

Iran's veteran captain, Ali Daei, 37, holds the world record of scoring over 100 international goals but has yet got to register in a World Cup. Daie, nicknamed Shahriar (The King) has scored for Hertha against both Chelsea and AC Milan, making him the first Asian scorer in the European Champions League.

Khodadad Azizi – Schalke 04 >> LA Galaxy >> Pas (Tehran)

Vahid Hashemian - Bochum >> Bayern Munich >> Hannover 96

Vahid Hashemian, 30, the fourth top scorer in the German Bundesliga in the 2003-4 season while playing for Bochum was signed by Bayern Munich before being transferred to Hanover 96. Nicknamed the "Iranian helicopter" in Germany due to his ability to freeze in the air while heading, Hashemians return to the national team boosted Iran's qualification chances and his goals were instrumental in taking Iran to the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.

Rahman Rezai – Messina

Rahman Rezai, 31, one of Iran's main stalwarts in defence plays for Messina in Serie A.
Nicknamed "the secretary of defence" due to his capabilities and experience at the back as a no-nonsense defender.

Ali Karimi – Bayern Munich

Ali Karimi, 27, one of Iran's highly skilled and most technically-gifted players is nicknamed Jadoogar (the Sorcerer) by his compatriots because of his stunning dribbling and maneuvering powers. Karimi presently plays for Bayern Munich and is widely expected to make his mark on the world football scene in his first world cup experience in 2006. Ali Karimi also a playmaker and a stylish scorer has many die hard fans in Iran who enjoy watching him in action.

Mehdi Mahdavikia – Hamburg SV

Mehdi Mahdavikia, 29, the scorer of Iran's second goal against the US in the 1998 World Cup could become Iran's first player to score in two World Cups if he finds the net in 2006. Mahdavikia, Hamburgs longest serving player, is nicknamed the "Iranian rocket" in the Bundesliga because of his speed. Mahdavikia has consistently been a major force for the national team.

Karim Bagheri – Biefeld (Germany) >> Charlton FC (injuries) >> Pirouzi

(Seyed) Ashkan Dejagah Hertha BSC >> Wolfsburg >> Fulham

Babak Khamsehpour, Baktash Khamsehpour & Will Yong

Books on Iran & Persian Culture