Archive for the ‘Ali Daei’ Category

Bigger than Nowruz

April 5, 2009

Sports and politics

Tehran Bureau | comment

Fifty years ago, Greco-Roman style wrestling was the favorite sport of Iranians. Over the years, however, football has replaced wrestling as the most watched and played sport in Iran. For many football matches are the most important TV event of the week. For others still, the results of a football match are much more important than, say, who the next president is going to be. In Iran football is more than a sport or passion; it is, quite literally, an obsession. Perhaps you have to be Brazilian to understand.

For me, it all started with the two football clubs: Persepolis and Esteghlal. In school you had to be a fan of one. If you weren’t interested, you were left out and picked on. So as is the tradition in my family, I became a Perspolisi, a fan of Persepolis, or one of the Reds. (The Esteghlalis are the Blues.) Almost all of my fights in school were related to football. At every recess, we were divided into two teams, the Reds and the Blues. We played football until we were called back to class. Even when following a fight the headmaster confiscated our football, we played with a stone! It usually took an injury, such as a broken tooth, for our headmaster to be persuaded to return our ball.

The Esteghlal and Persepolis football clubs have dominated the Iranian football league for decades. Even when they haven’t been league champions, they have been the most followed. These two teams have very large fan bases; in fact, it has been suggested that Persepolis has the largest fan base in all of Asia. Both teams were founded in the pre-revolutionary era to represent the capital Tehran in the national league. Esteghlal used to be called Taj, or crown, but with the revolution all symbols of the monarchy were abandoned and the club was renamed Esteghlal, meaning independence. Persepolis was also changed to Piruzi, meaning victory but, the fans continued to call the club Persepolis — a rare manifestation of defiance in the Islamic Republic. The clubs play in Azadi stadium, which can hold 100,000 people. It is one of the largest stadiums in the world, and certainly one of the most monumental.

Thousands flock from all corners of the country for the popular Tehran derby, where Persepolis and Esteghlal face-off. The rivalry between these teams is like that of Barcelona and Real Madrid, or Juventus and Inter Milan. Fans are willing to endure just about anything: hours in long queues, camping outside the stadium overnight, enduring unsanitary facilities, among many other inconveniences. I have never watched the derby up-close myself, but each time younger members of my extended family gather at my aunt’s to watch the match, it is the greatest family event of the year, even bigger than Nowruz.

In recent years the match has become boring — suspiciously so. Games end predictably in a draw, as if ordered by authorities. Perhaps they are concerned that the fanatic supporters of the losing team will tear apart not only the stadium, but the whole city. Even when the match ends in a draw, hundreds of buses are vandalized and thousands of seats in the stadium are ripped apart.

As I was growing up, Iranian state television began to broadcast European football matches. It was the safest form of programming, with little or no need for editing or censorship. As a result, my generation avidly followed European football clubs. I favored the Italian club, Juventus, and my brother Bayern Munich. We even became passionate fans of foreign national teams. I have always been a strong follower of Germany’s national team, while many in my family are strong fans of either Italy or Brazil.

Our obsession however remains with Iran’s national football team. Our greatest source of pride is its success, our greatest despair its loss. I’ll never forget the historic match between Iran and Australia in the 1998 World Cup qualifier in Melbourne. I was just 14 then. Iran was down by two goals when Karim Bagheri and Khodad Azizi scored two goals. The tie, plus the previous one all draw in Tehran, meant that we were on our way to the World Cup finals. I was so ecstatic, I couldn’t stop jumping up and down for an hour after the match was over. The walls in my room were suddenly filled with posters of the new national heroes. Since then I have rarely missed a national football game, but I have to admit, the games have never been the same.

One match came close in 1998, the World Cup in France. The game was between Iran and the United States, the first ever public encounter between the two after the revolution. Iran won that game and the nation burst out in joy. Millions took to the streets and we celebrated throughout the night, dancing and singing. It was the first time the Islamic Republic had to deal with such crowds in the streets. Police tried to disperse the crowd, but they were outnumbered. We went on celebrating en masse, in definace of a many-year ban on such an act.

Iran managed to make it to the World Cup finals once again after that, in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The deciding game was between Iran and Bahrain. We won and again the streets were filled with young people celebrating the victory. The victory coincided with the Iranian presidential elections, the one where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president. As is custom around elections in Iran, the atmosphere was relaxed and the authorities used the celebrations to show freedom in the country.

The victory over Bahrain had another significance: It was a victory over an Arab team, the very team whose win over Iran in the previous World Cup qualifiers had denied Iran the chance of qualifying, thus sending the Saudis to the final stages. No one has forgotten that the Bahrainis took a victory parade around the stadium holding the flag of Saudi Arabia.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia goes back many years. Iranians prefer to lose to South Korea (our other formidable Asian rival) by a six-goal margin than to lose or tie with Saudi Arabia.

Our worst nightmare was realized during these Nowruz holidays when Iran lost to Saudi Arabia at Azadi stadium during the 2010 South African World Cup qualifying games. The loss means that Iran has very little chance of making it to the finals. Worse still, we lost to Saudi Arabia. And we lost in Tehran, before a home audience, with hundreds of thousands of fans watching.

It is a bit like everything else that has gone wrong during the administration of Ahmadinejad: football has not been spared. Some superstitious people blame the defeat on Ahmadinejad’s presence in the stadium! Iran was ahead by one goal until he showed up, and then Saudi Arabia scored two goals.

It was not the first time that Iran lost in Ahmadinejad’s presence. A few months ago, in the final World Cup match of Greco-Roman wrestling, everything was going well. Iran was ahead in the overall team score and needed only one last victory to become the world champions. Iran’s heavyweight champion, Fardin Masoumi, was ahead of his Azerbaijani rival, then Ahmadinejad showed up in the stadium. Masoumi lost the match and Iran lost the title. This is why many blame Ahmadinejad for the failures of Iranians in sports!

To be fair, there may be some basis to this. Sports in Iran are a governmental affair. All of the major sporting clubs are run by the government and the whole thing is very political. Take Persepolis and Esteghlal. They are owned by the Iranian Sport Organization whose head is appointed by the president. The current chief of Iranian sports is a very controversial figure, Mohammad Aliabadi. He had no prior experience in sports or sport management before being appointed to the post. He is also head of the National Olympics Committee, which is banned under the Iranian constitution. His blunders and mismanagement have cost Iran much. In the Beijing Olympics, Iran’s performance was one of the worst in recent memory.

Through his insistence, Iranian football hero, Ali Daei, who has a limited coaching background, became the coach of the national football team. On his watch, the national football team, which many argue now possesses more talent than any othr time in its history, is being eliminated in the World Cup qualifying stage. In the past year, FIFA threatened to ban Iran’s football federation from international competitions because of the government’s intervention in the sport.

I think sports have come to symbolize many of the wrong choices Ahmadinejad has made for managerial posts in his administration over the past four years. Like almost every other sector, sports in Iran are in critical need of reform, reforms that a new president may be better suited to implement.

Realted reading
Notebook: Blind Luck
Notebook: Nowruz in Abu Dhabi

Blind Luck

March 14, 2009

‘Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate,’ says Mani. ‘One of mine is sport, and another is Iran.’ Pictured: Iranian football star Ali Daei.

From Tehran to the BBC: How I became a sports journalist.


Tehran Bureau | notebook

“The first male journalist to be allowed into any kind of women’s football in Iran.”

That’s the first line of my CV, coming just after my name. It happened in November 2004, and it happened entirely thanks to my blindness.

I was born in Tehran in 1980, just before the start of the brutal eight-year war with Iraq. I lived there until I was four, when I came to England with my family for what was only supposed to be a fortnight to have a sight-saving operation. The operation failed. I became totally blind and I did not return to Iran for another ten years.

Before I left though, I was famous in the family for two things: having a big mouth and watching extraordinary amounts of television. Not just kids’ television, all television: the news, speeches in parliament, coverage of Friday prayers. I was fascinated by the ability to find things out and then tell people about it. Over breakfast, I would tell my parents what the Ayatollahs had said the previous evening. Later, I might tell a visiting uncle or older cousin, there to babysit me, what the generals were saying at the battle front.

It was the seed which usually flourishes into a life of long hours, unreasonable deadlines and having to curb your dislike for someone because you have to interview him or because he is the only link between you and a crucial interview. It’s a life of going where others cannot and asking what they dare not. In short, my curiosity, and desire to tell everyone what it uncovered, led me to journalism.

Not that journalism is the ideal profession for the son of Iranian parents. Luckily, being blind meant that not even the pushiest parents, which in fairness mine are not, could expect a medical career. However, this did not stop my mum and dad suggesting several times how nice it would be for me to be a member of parliament or an international concert pianist, or if all else fails, a teacher. But not a journo…

However, it was the only thing I wanted to do. There was no Plan B. I got my first taste of a newsroom when I was 14. I went for a couple of weeks to my local evening newspaper for a work experience placement. I fully expected to take a day or two to settle in, before becoming an integral part of the team, getting my name in the paper, and within a week or so, being promoted, as I saw it, to the sports desk to write about my true passion.

Things did not quite turn out that way. For one thing, I could not use the computers properly. In those days, text-to-speech software, which makes computers accessible to blind people, was thin on the ground. So I had to memorize keystrokes to save articles and to place them in the required parts of the system. I also needed someone to proofread what I had written, as I could not. This was supposed to be done by one of my teachers who came for a few hours everyday to help me. However, when she was not there, I was effectively hamstrung. Too shy to ask the staff for help, I just sat at my desk and absorbed the buzz around me. I loved every minute of it.

So it was due to that, seven years later, that I did a masters in broadcast journalism. I would have done a journalism degree had my less-than-detailed research into universities revealed that the program I had chosen was taught in the northern industrial city of Sheffield. After a few nights of deep consternation, I decided to leave things as they were. Sheffield, England it was.

No two people get into broadcasting the same way. My way in came through a chance meeting with a friend of a friend in a restaurant one typically drizzly Sheffield evening. This friend of a friend told me that one of his other friends, Cathy, was working as a researcher on a national radio programme called In Touch, which focused on issues relating to blind and partially-sighted people. He asked me if I would mind if she called me up for my views on the “special versus mainstream education” debate, on which they were putting together a feature. I said that would be fine, and a few days later, we spoke. At the end of our conversation, Cathy said that she had heard that I wanted to become a broadcast journalist and offered to mention me to the programme’s producer.

In Touch had always been the suggested first port of call whenever my prospective career came up for discussion with anyone. I was adamant that it would not be any sort of port at all, as I was determined not to be pigeonholed. But when Cathy proposed a meeting between me and the producer, I said yes. A chance to work for network radio while I was still at university? How could I turn it down? This was a case of speculation meeting reality — and not even I was too proud to spot the potential opportunities.

My first report for In Touch was on the lack of commentary at football stadiums. It was rubbish. How it was allowed to air, I will never know. But it was, and they even asked me back. My career in fact had just started.

Most journalists have topics about which they are particularly passionate. One of mine is sport, and another is Iran. The ideal scenario was therefore to combine these loves in a report. The chance came in the autumn of 2004. Ali Daei, Iranian football’s irrepressible goalscorer, was about to become the first man in international football’s 132-year history to score 100 international goals. He was on 98 going into a World Cup qualifier against hapless Laos. There was no doubt that he would break the century barrier.

This was my chance, not only to report on Iran, but to interview my hero. I went to Iran, fully expecting him to fall at my feet. After all, I was from the BBC in London, and not merely the Persian Service either! He ignored all of my calls for ten days. As my frustrations with Daei and my panic at not having a story grew, I decided to try and cover other issues.

I discovered a women’s team in Tehran called Peikan and thought I might go along to interview them for a follow-up piece. I called up the team’s female coach and spoke to her of the difficulties of maintaining women’s football in the Islamic Republic. I ended by asking her if I could go along to one of Peikan’s training sessions to record some atmos and interview her.

“How are you going to do that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’re a man. You can’t come and watch us play.”

I was ready for this. “There are two reasons why I think you should let me come,” I said. “Firstly, I have come all the way from London to do this report. And secondly, I’m totally blind so I won’t be able to see any of the girls.”

She paused and then, to her eternal credit, said I could go. I was naturally the envy of all my hormone-driven teenage cousins. I turned up at an indoor gymnasium where Peikan trained, with my mum who could not resist the chance to see what it was like. The girls, who were between 15 and 18 years old, came out completely covered up rather than wearing t-shirts and shorts, as normal.

I recorded them practicing for a few minutes before I asked the coach for an interview somewhere quiet. She suggested her office and made for the door. Presumably there had been some doubts about the veracity of my claims to being totally blind. “Would you mind if I hold your arm?” I asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t like being touched by gentlemen,” she said, her reply curt and unequivocal. In a country where disabled people are generally seen as second-class citizens and patronized, a bit of good old-fashioned honesty was, to say the least, refreshing and I respected her enormously for it.

In the end, I had to doorstep Ali Daei after a training session, and he agreed to meet me. I am convinced that it was my white stick that sealed the deal and got me a 30-minute sit-down interview with Daei in the lobby of the hotel at which the players were staying. At that time, I was unaware that one of my cousins was still trying to get a hold of him via mutual contacts. So I was surprised when, three days later and a day before the Laos match, she called me to say that Daei had said I could go to his house after the game and interview him there. “But I’ve already interviewed him, Vida,” I said. Still, not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I went anyway.

Daei scored his 100th goal. In fact he scored the first four goals of a 7-0 rout. It happened on a soaking wet night in November 2004, at the national Azadi stadium, which was only a third full. It was history in the making and put Iran on the footballing map. However, people’s irrational dislike of Daei shamefully kept them from witnessing it first hand.

I arrived at his home at midnight. He left the rest of his family to eat their evening meal and took me through to his living room where we did a short interview about his 100th goal. We then chatted of this and that over tea before he suddenly left the room. I took this as a sign that I was outstaying my welcome.

“I’m sorry, Mani jan, this is a bit dirty,” he said upon his return. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he handed me a sodden football shirt. I hardly dared believe it. “What’s this?” I asked. “It’s my shirt,” was his laconic reply. And it was too. It was the shirt he was wearing when he scored that 100th goal. “You can’t give me this,” I protested. “You’ve got hundreds of other shirts. Give me one of those!” “No, it’s ok. Have it,” he said. So I did, after he had signed and dated it. Even so, I have always regarded it as being on loan to me. Sometimes those long hours and unreasonable deadlines lead to extraordinary spoils.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau