In Iran, soccer becomes a political football as Guards take over

'Red or blue? Persepolis or Esteghlal?' Few questions divide Iran more than those about loyalty to country’s top football clubs.

Anger management. Iran Persepolis’ defender Mohammadreza Khanzadeh watches fans throw flares, last April.

2015/10/23 Issue: 28 Page: 15

The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh

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.

Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

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