In Iran, soccer becomes a political football as Guards take over
Washington - “Red or blue? Persepolis or Esteghlal? Aboumoslem or Tractor Sazi?” Few questions divide Iran more than those about loyalty to the country’s top football clubs.
But the clubs and their fans have more in common than enthusiasts of “the beautiful game” care to admit. These days, many, if not most clubs, are controlled, directly or indirectly, by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
In recent years, IRGC commanders have become executives with some of the major soccer clubs while they hold senior positions in Iran’s extensive security apparatus.
Akbar Ghamkhar, former chief of logistics at the IRGC naval wing’s Nouh Base, and Mohammad Rouyanian, an IRGC officer and later a police chief, have served respectively as president and executive chief of Persepolis Football Club, one of Iran’s top teams, since 2002. Both are considered to be highly influential in football circles.
Lotf-Allah Forouzandeh Dehkordi, the IRGC chief of Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province, is a Persepolis FC board member. Commander Mostafa Ajorlou, a former IRGC Physical Training chief, is a board member of the Tractor Sazi club in Tabriz after a long career with several other teams.
Brigadier-General Gholam-Asgar Karimian serves as chairman of the board of the same club, which is owned by Mehr-e Eqtesad-e Iranian Investment Company, one of the IRGC’s financial arms.
Colonel Zohrab Qanbari Mahardou is executive director of Fajr Sepasi FC of Shiraz, which is officially owned and run by the Guards.
Their crossover into the sporting world may not be altogether for the love of the game. Many Iranians suspect it was to extend control of the clubs’ vast following of fans, who are seen as a potential power in the streets that, in certain circumstances, could turn on a clerical regime that brooks little criticism.
In recent years, Iranian soccer has been shaken by game-fixing scandals and poor performances, and this has provoked unusual public scrutiny into the commanders who run the sport. IRGC officers are busy trying to convince the country there is nothing untoward in their involvement.
Commander Aziz-Allah Mohammadi, a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and a former member of the Islamic Republic Football Federation, says the IRGC presence in soccer was not “planned”.
Questioned by the sports publication Tamashagaran Emrooz (Today’s Spectators), Mohammadi explained that most IRGC officers played football before the 1980-88 war with Iraq and simply “pursued their pre-war interests after the war ended”.
If they make it to the top management of the soccer clubs it’s because of their “qualifications” and not “connections”, he argued.
However, the Guards may have another motive. Mohammad Dadkan, former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation, defiantly hit out at the IRGC’s growing control of the sport in an interview with Khabar Online on August 21st.
“There’s no corruption in football itself… but the managers in the football world are corrupt. Unfortunately people who know nothing about football are involved in this sport — managers from the Guards and the Law Enforcement Forces,” he said.
Control of the teams and the fan clubs also allows the regime to permit the soccer-going public to vent its anger and frustrations under controlled circumstances. The IRGC skilfully harnesses the unruly fans and sees to it that any smouldering sense of anger or frustration is directed against the opposing team rather than the Tehran regime.
The regime has good reason to fear political fallout from football. In November 1997, as Iran advanced to the 1998 World Cup, soccer fans, including many women, took to the streets celebrating the national team with song and dance, which the regime frowned upon as un-Islamic.
It was the same when Iran beat the United States 2-1 at the World Cup in France in 1998. But things were different in October 2001 when the national team was beaten 3-1 at home to Bahrain in a World Cup qualifying match.
As rumours spread that the match had been politically fixed, fans went on the rampage, attacking banks and government buildings and clashing with police.
In widespread protests in the wake of the fraudulent June 2009 presidential election, the swelling opposition movement adopted the colour green as its symbol, which became a source of concern for the regime.
In the 2009 World Cup qualifier against South Korea in Seoul, six Iranian players wore green wristbands in the first half of the match. The wristbands had disappeared when the players returned for the second half of the game that ended in a 1-1 draw.
The spectators and fans watching the match on television saw the players’ first-half action as a protest against former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line winner of the disputed 2009 election.