You asked me about football? I’ll tell you about football.
The last time I went to Azadi Stadium with my father, it was the famous Esteghlal-Persepolis derby in Tehran. He was red and I was blue. I must have been seventeen. My friend, who was also red, was with us. To this day I cannot understand why his architect, tennis-type dad thought that my father would be able to handle the two of us. The game was at 6pm; we got there at 10 in the morning. We could only find tickets for the upper level, and my dad took us to a more or less neutral zone, basically the tail end of the reds. Red is the color of Persepolis, okay? So we were there all day. The sun was right above our bleachers and our brains had a good boil in the saucepan of our skulls. But honestly, I didn’t mind. Three minutes into the game Edmond Akhtar’s header landed in the back of Persepolis’s net. I started screaming, but the people around us were in deep silence. My dad stood up and slapped me in the face.
I sat down.
A few minutes later, the referee blew the whistle. A penalty kick. Blue’s mid-fielder scored the second goal. I sat there in silence, trying to be respectful. But the game was not over, and when blue scored a third time, I submitted myself wholeheartedly to another slapping. The final score was three to one. My friend, who didn’t want to curse in front of my father, went down a few rows before offering his penis to the mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts of every Esteghlal player in sight. He needn’t have moved; my father was offering his, as well.
I, on the other hand, held on tightly to my penis. We walked out of the main gate, through layers and layers of riot police, ambulances, burning buses, and shattered glass, on an impossible mission to find a ride back home.
But not all of my Azadi adventures had happy endings. In fact, that may have been the only one. For instance, there’s the Iran-Saudi Arabia game that we lost, 1-0. Imagine, losing to Arabestan in Iran! It was a national humiliation. My friends and I were at the gates before dawn and we still couldn’t get tickets for the lower level; people had camped out the night before. When Arabestan scored, the ball rolled out from under the net — there was a hole in the damn thing — and we all thought it was a goal kick. But then the referee gave the signal and the Arabs were hopping up and down.
The whole football federation was a lavatory. Ripped nets and sun-bleached benches, puddle-of-shit toilets, balled-up grass, and muddy penalty areas. On overseas trips, our teams were not allowed to bring backup players or doctors because the plane was full of spies and wives and children of various officials. Players weren’t allowed to leave their camps — they might go chasing prostitutes or get drunk in a bar or seek asylum or whatever. Instead they filled their bags with duty-free mobile phones and smuggled them into the country.
Did I ever tell you about 90? It’s one of the most popular shows on TV. It’s the Iranian Monday Night Football, but it’s not a game. It’s behind-the-scene stories, interviews, locker-room visits, and tart-on-face no-taarof-barred criticism. (Do people say “tart-on-face”?) Everybody watches it. They get up to 1.5 million text messages when they ask people to give their opinion on various league-related events. Officials are always trying to ban it — actually it’s been banned several times in the past. I hear it’s off the air even now, but I’m not sure why. One hears a lot of things.
90 isn’t just for the kind of people who slap their kids in public. A lot of 90 fans don’t even follow football. It’s probably the only TV show where you hear profanity. (The trash talk in Farsi is pretty impossible to regulate.) But people love the host, Adel Ferdosipour. He’s funny and completely no-nonsense and he doesn’t seem to care who he pisses off. Maybe that’s the appeal, really. There’s something liberating about the idea that talking about problems might lead to them actually getting fixed, even if the problem is how to keep cows and sheep from shitting all over the football fields (see page 140).
As we used to say at Azadi Stadium: “Up your ass with a samovar spout!”