Iran’s New Billionaire Football Club

In August 2018, Tractor Sazi, an Iranian club
from the city of Tabriz, went to Tehran to play local giants Esteghal
at the Azadi national stadium. In the stand behind the goal, a few thousand Tractor fans
with red shirts sang: ‘Death to the dictator! Death to the
dictator!’. The chant echoes themes heard during the protests
& demonstrations against the regime that took part in Iran
in 2018, which were instructed by a worsening economic crisis in the country. The song is
heard frequently during Tractor’s games with Esteghal in
the Persian Gulf Pro League and is directed at Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader & current ruler, since 1989.
During the game, the police responded with force, beating and arresting fans until the
signing stopped. Tractor lost 3-0, but the chants continued regardless
and the Iranian broadcaster televising the game felt compelled
to lower the volume of their pitch-side microphones. It’s part of turbulent atmosphere which
surrounds Tractor Sazi, one of the most fascinating clubs in the Middle
East, during their most hectic season ever. In 1970, the Iranian governmental tractor
company in Tabriz decided to establish a football team for the factory
workers and the city’s residents. The venture was aimed at strengthening the connection
between the company, the state and the area’s inhabitants.
Tabriz is in northwestern Iran, close to the border with Azerbaijan and Turkey. Around
1.7 million people live in the city, which is a melting pot of
Azerbaijani-Turks, Shiite Muslims, as well as Armenian-Christian
Kurds and Bahai’s minorities. The spoken language in the province, unlike
the rest of the country, is Azerbaijani. The language has fallen
from relevance in the rest of Iran and is practically banned in written form and in
schools, but in the Yadegare Emam’ stands, Azerbaijani is almost the
sole language spoken. So, while the local masses feel underrepresented
on a national & cultural level, Tractor has become a symbol
of Azeri identity. According to the last census, there are over 16 million Azerbaijanis living
in Iran, while only 8 million are living in Azerbaijan itself.
Tractor are also highly popular in Azerbaijan and parts of Turkey as well and, as a result
of its unique cultural identity, also performs a strong representative
role. The Tabrizians, in a way, are a sort of ‘outsiders in Persian’
society, especially for those who live in capital Tehran, and this isn’t confined
to football.What started as a leisure pursuit for the residents and
the factories’ workers in Tabriz, has become a powerful brand over
the years. The club’s official fan club has over 500,000
members and alongside the popular football team, the club
competes in futsal, basketball, volleyball, taekwondo, baseball and is planning to enter
the E-Sports market soon.
Still, the Kırmızı Kurtlar – or Red Wolves – have never been part of Persian football’s
elite. In the club’s early years, Tractor mainly struggled in the Iranian
second division. Back then, Iran was autocratic, monarchy-led
& a pro-western country, and under the reign of the Shah – Mohamed Reza Pahlavi.
It was the pre-revolution times, and it was a different country to the one it is today.
Then, in 1979, the famous revolution took over the country, and Iran
changed dramatically. By the end of the 1970s and after a
gradual decline in power of the Shah regime and the Iranian public’s growing frustration
with economic crisis and the repeated interference of foreign countries
in Iran, the structure of the country was on the verge of
collapse. A coalition of religious and business leaders,
liberals and left-wing activists, all guided by the ideology of
Ayatollah Khomeini, at the time in exile in France, began to inspire high profile protests
and demonstrations, targeting the Shah regime as corrupt, avaricious
and being under the control of western powers. The protest movement grew extensively and
eventually resulted in the overthrow of Pahlavi. A new religious
rule grew in its place, with Khomeini becoming the Supreme Leader of a new Islamic Republic.
The national football league was suspended for many years after, returning only in 1987,
and in its place the provincial game remained in the years between.
Tractor would spend those years bouncing between divisions,
but since 2001, when the Persian Pro League was launched, they have been a constant member
of the top-flight. Still, winning the Persian Hafzi
Cup remains their only major honour in 48 years of existence and,
although they have been a regular participant in the Asian Champions League in recent years,
they’ve struggled to achieve any significant results.
And yet Tractor are a still a vast club in Iran. and almost all of their home game played
at Yadegar-e Emam Stadium are in front of 66,000 capacity crowd.
The club’s main rivals are from Tehran: Esteghal and Persepolis, the reigning champions.
Every time Tractor arrive in Tehran to play, they’re supported
by tens of thousands of fans drawn not just from the Azeri community
in the city but from all over Iran. In addition to being a meeting between Azerbaijanis and
Persians, the fixture pits a sizeable minority seeking
recognition in a country against those who control it. It is the
Tabrizis versus the Tehranis. In 2018, the club was bought by Mohammed Reza
Zonouzi, a local billionaire who owns ATA Airlines, Bank
of Saman, Bank of Gardeshgari and the Bonyan Diesel factory, among others. According to
a 2011 report, his fortune was estimated at $4 billion and,
given the scarcity of billionaires in Iranian football, his takeover
of Tractor had a dramatic effect. The began to make statements almost immediately.
John Toshack was appointed as head-coach. While better
known in European for his time at Sporting Lisbon, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid, Toshack
has spent much of the last decade off the beaten track,
coaching in Macedonia and Morocco. Most recently, he spent
two seasons with Wydad Casablanca, prior to which he won the Azeri Super Cup in 2013 with
Khazar Lankaran in Azerbaijan.
It initially made him a good fit for Zonouzi’s Tractor project, particularly given his ability
to attract players from Europe to Tabriz. Harry Forrester, a
former Aston Villa academy graduate, has already made a brief
stop in Iran, while Anthony Stokes, who had great success with Glasgow Celtic in the Scottish
Premiership, is still at the club, scoring an average of
over a goal every two games. Zonouzi is investing wisely, seeking to grow
his club’s global appeal. Yukiya Sugita, a diminutive, tricky
Japanese attacking-midfield who had previously played in Spain and Sweden, signed for an
undisclosed fee on a three-year contract. Sugita is not a
member of the Japanese national team, but his transfer still made
Tractor Sazi one of the hottest trends on Japanese Television in the days after.
At the beginning of August 2018, Tractor then sent further tremors through Iranian football.
Masoud Shojaei and Ashkan Dejagah, both stars of the national
side, signed from AEK Athens and Nottingham Forest respectively.
The photo of Zonouzi posing with his two new signings immediately went viral on Iranian
social media. Lee Erwin, a Scottish striker from Kilmarnock,
also joined, and another famous Iranian, Ehsan Haj Safi, who
has over 100 caps for the country, moved home from Greek Super League side Olympiakos.
Like ‘galacticos’ projects of the past, Tractor initially struggled with the quick
influx of so many new players. Their current season did not start well, beginning
with a modest two wins from six games and, disappointingly,
in a penalty shoot-out elimination from the Hafzi Cup. Zonouzi responded by sacking Toshack.
Forrester, who arrived in poor condition shape, played
just two games before being shipped out on loan to their
city rivals, Machine Sazi. It did not have the desired effect and, upon the expiration
of the loan, Forrester was released from his contract and allowed to
move to a minor club in the United States. In January 2019, to replace Toshack, Zonouzi
hooked the big name coach he wanted: the Belgian, Georges
Leekens. Leekens has a rich past with Middle Eastern clubs & North African national teams
has now landed in Iran. But that wasn’t the extent of the
January incomings. In one of the biggest transfers Persian football
had ever known, former AC Milan defender Kevin Constant also became a Tractor player, signing
from Swiss Super Club FC Sion.
In total, Tractor signed 21 new players ahead of the 2018/19 season and for a cumulative
cost of nearly $8 million. On the one hand, of course, Zonouzi’s
impact and the sanctioned spending has delighted the Tractor
fans. On the other, however, with the effect of the US sanctions, inflation escalating
in Iran and the currency plummeting, the club’s ambition has not
been received well. Particularly as the contracts of the foreign players,
and those of Shojaei and Dejagah, are paid in dollars, meaning that – in effect – the
currency leaves the footballing economy rather than helping to
sustain it. It’s investment which is paying off, though.
Despite their bad start, Tractor were fourth by the middle of
March, having scored the second-most goals in the Persian Pro League. At the beginning
of February, they hosted Esteghlal at the Yadegar-e Emam, winning
courtesy of a Dejagah goal in front of 85,000 fans. The
images of the day were striking, with journalists and drones capturing the kind of passion for
football which isn’t readily associated with Iranian football.
The future looks bright for Tractor and a title this season isn’t beyond the realm
of possibility.Whatever this year’s outcome, though, Tractor Sazi is
no longer just an Iranian team with a funny name and an unusual
logo. Instead, with their financial ambition and recognisable players, they are now one
of the most inspiring clubs in the Middle East.

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