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Stadium Experiences: Azadi Stadium – The Lions Den

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As an Iranian-American born and raised in the United States, I have managed to hold on to a few deeply rooted Iranian cultural traits, most notably, my love for Iranian Football.  Some would call me crazy for flying to Tehran from Washington, DC for only three days to watch Iran play Korea in a crucial World Cup qualifier, but I say it is a small price to pay to be amongst 100,000+ of my countrymen for such an important game.

Nearly 24 hours after leaving my home in Washington, DC, I finally arrived in Tehran the day before the big game.  I was greeted at the airport by what seemed to be an endless group of family members.  In a car full of my cousins, we made the crosstown drive from Imam Khomeini International Airport in morning Tehran traffic, which is a rather daunting adventure in itself. Two hours later, we arrived at my aunt’s house in Sadat Abad in Northwest Tehran, which we chose due to its close proximity to Azadi Stadium.  My family members who didn’t make the trip to the airport were all waiting for me when I arrived to an epic Persian breakfast, which came just in time as I was seemingly on the verge of starvation.

To fully understand the atmosphere at breakfast, it should be noted that I have enough first cousins who are male to field a full soccer team.  The anticipation was so great, and I was excited to find out that all of them had taken the next day off from work and would be accompanying me to the stadium for the next day’s match.  The itinerary was discussed over breakfast, and it was set that we would leave the house at 6:30am to ensure that we would get good seats for the match with an 8:00pm kickoff.  After a short nap after breakfast, we all went outside and played street soccer for a few hours which brought back many fond memories of my previous trips to Iran.  That night, the 11 of us going to the match slept at my aunt’s house, and ,even though I was exhausted from my trip, I was just too excited to sleep.  I finally fell asleep around 3:00am and before I knew it, we were on our way to the game.

We arrived at Azadi over 12 hours before the game, and we were not even close to the first ones there.  Many fans from all over Iran had camped at the stadium since the night before, because in Iran, tickets are only sold at the stadium and a few other ticket offices around Tehran, and most fans actually buy their tickets the day of the match at the stadium.  We spent most of the day outside of the stadium tailgating Iranian style – playing more street soccer and eating kabob made on portable charcoal grills.  With kickoff rapidly approaching, we started to make our way into the stadium.

I started to worry about the handful of diehard female fans that I noticed dressed as boys in order to get into the stadium.  In Iran, women are not allowed to attend men’s sporting events, so I was interested to see what would happen if they were caught.  It didn’t take long for me to find out, but I was pleased to know that the young girl of 17 years of age was only held until her parents came to pick her up; not as harsh of a punishment as the western media would suggest.  To my surprise, some of the females actually got into the stadium, whether they managed to stay for the entirety of the game, I don’t know.

After being searched thoroughly before entering the stadium, we made our way up to the second level.  When we walked out into the stands, the atmosphere was already electric and the backdrop of the snowcapped Zagros Mountains which seemed to go into heavens was breathtaking.  There were nearly 100,000 fans in the stadium hours before kick-off and I was reminded all over again why this is widely considered to be one of the most intimidating stadiums in the world.  Not only were there 100,000 fans in the stadium, but there were 100,000 men in the stadium.  They are not there to chat and be social, they are there to watch the game and create the most intimidating atmosphere possible for the opposition.

A shot of the stadium from my seat.

The game hadn’t even started and it was already difficult to hear the person sitting beside me, who as it turned out, was an Iranian soldier who snuck off of the base to watch the match.  When I asked him what would happen if he gets caught, he simply replied “if we win, then it doesn’t matter, it will have been worth it”, which made me question my self-proclaimed title as Team Melli’s biggest fan.  When the soldier found out I was visiting from America, he and his friends were eager to make a good impression and their hospitality was incredible, even by Iranian standards.  The unbelievable hospitality continued when one of them caught a jersey that was launched into the stands, and after fighting off the others, gave me the jersey as his guest in Iran.  The starting lineups were now taking the field and the tension was building to a level that I had never personally felt in any stadium around the world.  This was a must win game for Iran – everyone in the stadium knew it- but there was a sense of confidence amongst the fans.

From the kickoff, it was obvious that both teams were feeling the overwhelming pressure of the match and both teams had trouble getting anything going early on.  As the game progressed, Iran had the better of the play but Korea was consistently dangerous on set pieces, making us very nervous every time we gave up a foul in our own half.  The first half ended 0-0 but it only took 3 minutes from the second half whistle for things to heat up Iran’s Spain-based winger Masoud Shojaei received his first yellow card and another one followed only 7 minutes later, leaving Iran to play the next 35 minutes of regulation with only 10 men.  The tides seemed to be turning against us as most of us stood silent knowing we were now a man down in an uphill battle against a determined Korean squad in impeccable physical condition.

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What happened next even surprised the most optimistic Iran fans.  The red card seemed to awaken a sleeping beast, and Iran was now defending with heart and looking very dangerous on the attack.  Iran continued to bravely push forward and were rewarded with a freekick in a dangerous position in the 75th minute.  The ensuing freekick was taken by Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, and when Korea failed to clear the ball, Esteghlal Tehran midfielder and national team captain Javad Nekounam made them pay the ultimate price, hammering the ball into the back of the net and simultaneously sending the stadium into oblivion.

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After the goal celebrations calmed down, I somehow found myself two rows down from my seat. From that point on, it was back to business for the Iranians who defended the lead with their lives.  Every time the Koreans got near their attacking third, my heart would nearly stop.  After what seemed to be the longest 15 minutes of my life, I was just ready for the final whistle to blow.  I would have to wait through 7 minutes of injury time torture to finally hear the whistle and take one step closer to Brazil.   The final whistle came and was more than welcome as a mass exodus of fans poured out of the stadium and their homes onto the streets to celebrate.  I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to get home, but I do know that there wasn’t even one moment along the way that I wasn’t having the best time of my life.

I write this tale of my journey to Tehran from my apartment in Washington, DC, and I am already planning my next trip to Iran.  This time, I will be going to the Tehran Derby where the blue and red sides of Tehran face off in a highly anticipated grudge match between Esteghlal and Perspolis.  More to follow….

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4 Comments on "Stadium Experiences: Azadi Stadium – The Lions Den"

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  1. Goran Coric says:

    Amazing story I'm glad you love your fathers culture and opened some eyes to people that believe in all the crazy stuff that the news report

  2. Goran Coric says:

    Best of luck 2 you keep us posted on how things are take care my friend !

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