AFC – TEHRAN, As the 2020-21 Iran Pro League season gets underway over the weekend, the-AFC.com looks at Islamic Republic of Iran’s most supported football clubs in the latest part of this series.
With a population of over 80 million, Iran is West Asia’s most populous nation and home to arguably the region’s most passionate football fans. Tehran’s Azadi Stadium boasts the record for highest attendance in AFC Asian Cup history, as 100,000 fans watched Team Melli beat Kuwait 1-0 in the 1976 final.
Surveying the club scene in the country and taking into consideration factors such as historical success and fan base, we have selected five teams as IR Iran’s most popular. It is now up to you to review the nominees and vote for your favourite Iranian club.
When club football in Iran is mentioned, the first thing that comes to mind is the iconic rivalry between Tehran’s powerhouses, Persepolis and Esteghlal, played out at the Azadi Stadium. Persepolis, the red half of the capital, often referred to as ‘The Red Army’ is one of Asia’s most popular club sides.
Founded in 1963, Persepolis are Iran’s most successful club side with 13 league titles to their name. And while continental glory has evaded them, Persepolis did contest the AFC Champions League final as recently as 2018 and are set to play at the pinnacle of continental football again in the final of the 2020 edition in December.
Persepolis enjoyed their most successful spell in the 1990s; a decade that saw legends of Iranian football such as Ali Daei, Karim Bagheri, Khodadad Azizi and Mehdi Mahdavikia don the club’s famous red shirt. Persepolis reached the Asian Club Championship semi-finals in the 1996-97 and 1997-98 editions and were unlucky not to go further on both attempts.
The past five years saw a resurgence of the club’s fortunes akin to that of 20 years earlier. Persepolis cruised to four consecutive league titles and were present in the AFC Champions League semi-final three times in the past four years, going on to reach the final in 2018 and 2020 with names such as Seyed Jalal Hosseini and Vahid Amiri integral to their recent success.
While the blue half of Tehran trails its red half in terms of domestic league titles, Esteghlal fans can take pride in the fact their club is the only surviving Iranian club to have continental silverware in their cabinet.
In fact, Esteghlal boast not one, but two titles in Asia’s biggest club competition. Their first success at the Asian Club Championship came in its third edition in 1970. Back then, the club named Taj Tehran became the first Iranian side to win a continental competition, defeating Hapoel Tel Aviv 2-1 in the final.
Two decades later, the Blues registered the same score in a continental final, beating China PR’s Liaoning FC to win their second Asian Club Championship title in 1990-91. Further attempts in 1991 and 1998-99 saw them fall just short, losing the final on two occasions.
Over the years, many a Team Melli star have represented the club founded in 1945, including the likes of Farhad Majidi, Andranik Teymourian, Majid Hosseini and current club captain Vorya Ghafouri.
As far as 400 km south of the capital Tehran lies Isfahan, the nation’s third largest city and its former Imperial capital. The city is home to one of IR Iran’s most successful and popular club sides, Sepahan FC.
Founded in 1953, Sepahan rose to prominence around the turn of the century, becoming the first club based outside of Tehran to win the Iran Pro League title in 2002-03 and competing in the 2004 AFC Champions League campaign as their first continental appearance.
Success continued throughout the 21st century with the club adding four more league titles by 2015, becoming the third most successful in the competition’s history and winning the Hazfi Cup on four occasions, a record only bettered by Persepolis and Esteghlal.
Perhaps the brightest moment in the club’s history arrived in 2007 when they took Asia by storm, going on to reach the AFC Champions League final, becoming the first Iranian club to reach that stage in the rebranded competition. But unfortunately for the side in black and yellow, they were beaten by Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan.
Sepahan’s city rivals Zobahan FC are 16 years their juniors, having been established in 1969, but the green-clad team from Isfahan have gone on to establish themselves as one of the nation’s most successful football clubs.
While a much sought-after Iran Pro League title is yet to arrive for Zobahan, but just like their neighbours, Zobahan have four Hazfi Cup titles to their name, the first of which came in 2002-03, meaning Zobahan also shared the privilege of being the first team from outside Tehran to represent Iran in the AFC Champions League, appearing in the second edition of the competition alongside their city rivals.
The similarities between the two Isfahan sides do not stop there; three years after Sepahan achieved a memorable run to the AFC Champions League final, it was Zobahan’s time to do the same in the 2010 edition, knocking out the likes of Al Ittihad, Al Hilal and Pohang Steelers en route to a historic final they lost to Seongnam FC of Korea Republic 3-1.
Club legends include goalkeeper Rasoul Korbekandi who spent his entire career at Zobahan, representing Iran at the 1978 FIFA World Cup as well as Ali Akbar Ostadi who wore the Zobahan colours for eight years and played at the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
Rounding off our selection of the five most popular Iranian club sides are Tabriz-based Tractor SC, previously known as Tractorsazi.
The club, founded in 1950 enjoyed their best spell of success in the past decade, becoming a well-known name to fans of Asian football thanks to their five AFC Champions League appearances in the past seven years, a tally that was made possible thanks to three runner-up finishes in the Iran Pro League and two Hazfi Cup titles.
Tractor’s best run in the AFC Champions League came in 2016 when they topped a group including more experienced sides such as Al Nassr and Bunyodkor, before locking horns with UAE Al Nasr who were able to eliminate them from the Round of 16 with a 5-4 score, having halted a late Tractor rally.
Tractor fans pride themselves in the fact the club’s youth academy produced one of Iran’s finest players of all time in Bagheri. Other big name players who have represented Tractor include forward Karim Ansarifard and Javad Kazemian.