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banner Friday, 9 November, 2001, 07:22 GMT
Iran takes football to its heart
Karim Bagheri in action against the USA
Bagheri (right): First Iranian to play in the Premiership
The BBC's Jim Muir looks at the meteoric rise of football in Iran.

It's hard to say when it happened, but nobody would dispute the fact that football has overtaken wrestling to become Iran's number one sport.

The country has rapidly become a land of football nuts.

Every time their national team plays - win or lose - hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets, sometimes angry, sometimes jubilant, sometimes just to be there.

Iran do battle with Bahrain in Asian qualifier
Defeat to Bahrain sent Iran to play-offs

As with most other things in the region, the British are to blame.

Early oil prospectors introduced the game to Bakhtiari tribesmen in the south-west of the country early in the 20th century.

It's never looked back.

Iranian football began to make international headway under the Shah.

In 1978, the national team made it through to the World Cup finals in Argentina, where their best result was to hold Scotland to a 1-1 draw.

After the revolution the following year, the game went into decline somewhat, as the flower of Iranian youth was crushed in the machine of eight years of war with Iraq.

But, in the 1990s, football went on the rampage, as Iran first lifted the Asia cup in 1990, and then booked its place in the World Cup finals of 1998.

At that event, the team scored a famous 2-1 victory over the country's political foe, the USA.

Football is the main thing in Iranian society - in a way it's political, because it's a demand for social change
Iranian football fan

It was during that campaign that a new phenomenon - the eruption into the streets of huge, boisterous crowds - took off.

For the Islamic regime, this is an unsettling business.

Girls sometimes rip their headscarves off and wave them in the air, dancing and singing.

Such behaviour is dourly frowned upon by the ayatollahs.

Football has definitely become a vehicle for thinly-disguised social and even political protest against their rule.

Some of the crowds have chanted anti-regime slogans.

"It's the main thing in Iranian society," said one football fan.

"In my neighbourhood everybody goes out into the streets. It's a good excuse for boys and girls to mix, and in a way it's political, because it's a demand for social change."

Curiously, despite its popularity, there isn't much money in Iranian football.

Ali Daei celebrates Iran's place in the 1998 World Cup
Ali Daei bares emotion after beating Australia

Its two-division Azadegan League is one of very few amateur leagues left in Asia.

Most of the players have other jobs and the record club-to-club transfer stands at something like US$10,000.

No wonder then that nine of the Iranian national squad play for European clubs.

The first division - comprising 12 teams with four relegated each year - is dominated by the two big Tehran teams, Pirouzi and Istighlal.

No other team has ever come close to challenging their supremacy.

Until Iran's current manager, Croatian Miroslav Blazevic, took over last year, those two powerhouses always provided all of the players for the national squad.

Blazevic broke the mould by bringing in four players from other parts of the country, adding an element of raw talent to the more honed skills on offer.

The Republic of Ireland will need to watch out for veteran striker Ali Daei and attacking midfielder Ali Karimi
Jim Muir

Although enthusiasms are fickle, Blazevic currently enjoys a god-like status for both players and fans.

His team lost only one game in the qualifying rounds - to Bahrain - after which the instinctive reaction of many fans was to blame not the manager but their government.

The Republic of Ireland have never played Iran before but will need to watch out for veteran striker and captain Ali Daei and attacking midfielder Ali Karimi.

Other Iranian players to keep an eye on are midfielder Karim Bagheri - whose spell with Charlton last year made him the first Iranian to play in the Premier League - Hamburg midfielder Mehdi Mahdavi-Kia, and Sturm Graz's Mehrdad Minovand.

See also:

08 Nov 01 |  World Cup 2002
Republic of Ireland v Iran stats
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