It is a swift six hour drive along the modern, three-lane freeway from Tabriz to Tehran. Descending from the historic city, the driver traces the ridge of the Sahand volcano, where the tower blocks of Tabriz give way first to sparse, sandy villages, then to vast, empty dust plains.
The journey skirts the eastern edge of the Angoran protected area, where wild boar and wolves roam freely in the grey, scudded hills. On arrival at Qazvin, an ancient city once razed by Genghis Khan, the traveller joins Freeway One for the final ninety minute run into the capital.
Such is the journey regularly made by supporters of Tractor Sazi, pre-eminent club of northern Iran, whenever they meet their major rivals in Tehran. Esteghlal, Persepolis, Naft Tehran; all of these stand between Tractor Sazi and national dominance, as well as the main power in the south, Sepahan of Isfahan.
This season, albeit early on, Tractor sit top of the league. Their strong, physical approach is proving effective, especially at set pieces; centre back Seyed Hosseini is their top scorer, well ahead of former Hamilton Academicals striker Flavio Paixao.
In early September, Tractor arrived in Tehran, with several thousand supporters in tow, for a top of the table clash with second placed Esteghlal. But as ever with Tractor Sazi, this was about much more than football.
Al-Qurtlar, the Red Wolves, are practically a national side. Based in Tabriz, they are a focal point and flag bearer for the fiercely strong regional identity in north-western Iran. Tabriz is the capital of East Azerbaijan province, but the club draws equal support from West Azerbaijan, across the salty waters of Lake Urmia.
This is a region consistently threatened by edicts and prejudice from far-off Tehran. The local language, an impenetrable hybrid of Azeri and Turkish, is not taught in schools by national order, and is in danger of extinction. Ethnic Azerbaijanis claim that discrimination against them is rife within Iranian society. Where else, where better, can these grievances be aired than in the vast, 71,000 capacity Yadegar-e-Emam Stadium, home of Tractor Sazi?
“Yurdumuzun iftikharisan, Azhar elinin qahramanisan.” In their forbidden native language, the Tractor fans chant these most appropriate words: “Tractor, you are the pride of our land, the hero of the Azerbaijani people”.
All too frequently, such chanting is deemed seditious, and disrupted by Tehran-backed security forces. Disorder is frequent, not helped by a widespread belief that refereeing at best shows bias, at worst is outright corrupt, in favour of teams from Tehran.
The centre of Tabriz itself is frequently the scene of wild celebration in victory, violence in defeat. The Grand Bazaar, a UNESCO World Heritage site, reached its height of prosperity around the time when England was ruled by Richard the Lionheart; but it still rouses itself to raucous jubilation when Tractor defeat a team from the south.
Whenever Tractor play a match in Tehran, there is an obvious potential for chaos. The visitors are inevitably well supported, both by travellers from the north and from ethnic Azerbaijanis living in the capital. As match day against Esteghlal dawned, streets around the Azadi stadium were filled with supporters in the colours of the Red Wolves; red t-shirts, scarves, jackets, caps, even one fan in an improbably vast scarlet sombrero.
On this occasion, as well as their usual grievances with Tehran, the Azerbaijani supporters had one very firm objective in mind: they planned to protest against the drying up of Urmia Lake. Lake Urmia is central both to the region’s identity and economy, yet is has been progressively drying up for a number of years. Environmentalists both inside and outside Iran claim that this is largely due to the aggressive agricultural policies of the government in Tehran, including a positive mania for the construction of dams.
A month before the match in Tehran, the New York Times likened the Urmia situation to the destruction by neglect of the Aral Sea, in the latter years of the Soviet Union. The issue has become a cause celebre for the Iranian opposition under Mir Hussein Moussavi. A senior Moussavi advisor, Amir Arjomand, accused the government of being “indifferent towards the real challenges facing the people [of Tabriz] and out of touch with…this area.”
Authorities in Tehran were expecting the protest; disorder having already occurred at several recent Tractor matches in Tabriz; a week earlier Euronews reported the arrest of “two dozen ethnic Azerbaijanis” after demonstrations in the city.
The policing response was typically heavy-handed. Tractor fans arriving at the stadium were stopped, searched, and many had their tickets torn up by masked police. The Azerbaijanis, rumoured to be up to ten thousand in number, stormed the ticket barriers.
Inside the ground, Paixao scored a late winner for Tractor, and chaos erupted. “Long live Azerbaijan” was the sole chant to be heard, as police in full riot gear attacked the jubilant away support.
Away from the stadium, further clashes were reported near the grave of Sattar Khan, the Azeri hero of the 1911 Constitutional Revolution. Tractor fans gathered here to continue their protest, but police surrounded they graveyard, arresting dozens in the ensuing clashes.
Among those arrested was the noted Azeri leader, Abbas Lisani. Lisani became a key figure in the movement for Azeri rights after leading a protest movement in his home town of Ardabil, East Azerbaijan. He was arrested, imprisoned, and, under threat of torture, saw his cause adopted by Amnesty International. Treated appallingly in prison, he undertook a hunger strike, and was released after almost three years under the admonishment to never again participate in pro-Azeri protests.
Lisani, a Tractor Sarzi fan, was never likely to obey such a sanction for long. In Tabriz, the military were called in to quell disorder arising from Tractor’s victory. Police proved unable to contain demonstrations which were a heady, if bizarre mix of football celebration, political protest and environmental lobbying.
In this part of north western Iran, an area far away from the international spotlight, identity, politics and pride will always be intertwined with the fortunes of the local football team. For, whilst ethnic Azeri leaders may never be able to challenge the authority of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or President Ahmedinajad, Tractor Sarzi can still score late winners in Tehran.
By Tom Clover
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona