AFC Champions League 2018: 5 things to know about finalists Persepolis FC of Iran

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Named after the ancient capital of the Achaemenid Empire, Persepolis FC are indeed a monumental club when it comes to Iranian football. But, despite being a domestic force in Iran, continental glory has eluded them for half a century. And they are desperate to change it when they face Japan’s Kashima Antlers in the final of the 2018 AFC Champions League this week. 

The first leg of the final will be played at the Kashim Stadium on Saturday followed by the second a week later at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran where the new Asian champions will be crowned. And around 100,000 fans who will flock the venue will hope and pray it will be the Red Army that ends up victorious to end their long and painful wait for the continental crown.

But before that, let’s examine five facts about this Persepolis side which is one of the most supported clubs in the whole of Asia.

1. The Iranians overcame Xavi’s Al Sadd to reach their first AFC Champions League final

Persepolis have faced some tough opponents on their road to the final, but the toughest of them was without a doubt their challengers in the semifinal — Al Sadd SC of Qatar who lined up with none other than Barcelona great Xavi orchestrating the midfield. And if that wasn’t enough, they also had former Atletico Madrid legend Gabi manning the defence.

In the first leg at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in Doha, the Iranians dug deep and frustrated their opponents. A classic smash and grab win followed as 23-year-old forward Ali Alipour scored a controversial penalty in the 86th minute to give them the win and more importantly an away goal to take to the second leg at the Azadi Stadium.

But Branko Ivanković’s side suffered an early setback when Al Sadd drew level on aggregate with a 17th-minute goal that stunned the Persepolis fans. But the home side regained the lead and control of the tie as Siamak Nemati found the back of the net early second half. Though Xavi almost scored a dramatic winner in the 86th minute, Persepolis managed to book a first-ever ticket to the Champions League final.

2. Their goalkeeper has denied Cristiano Ronaldo at the World Cup and was once homeless

Alireza’s career high came at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia last summer when he saved a Portugal penalty kick taken by Cristiano Ronaldo. That save proved to be vital as Iran came back from one goal down to wrest back a point from the 2016 European champions. However, despite earning a  1-1 draw versus Portugal and beating Morocco 1-0, Iran bowed out with heads held high losing to Spain 1-0.

However, it’d be difficult to believe that the 26-year-old Persepolis shot-stopper was once homeless and had to work in a dressmaking factory and car washes to pursue his dream of becoming a footballer after leaving home where his father was opposed to him pursuing a career in sports. A young Alireza reached Tehran where he even worked as a street cleaner before making a name as a top-class goalkeeper.

Alireza joined Persepolis from Naft Tehran in 2016 and has won two Persian Gulf Pro League titles (2016-17, 17-18) as well as two Super Cups (2017, 2018) with the Red Army. He was also named the Iranian league’s best goalkeeper of the year on three occasions. But his trophy cabinet might be just about to get a major addition if he can come up with his usual heroics between the sticks against Kashima Antlers.

3. Their stadium makes for one of the most intimidating atmospheres in football

When you hear the name Persepolis FC, the first thing that comes to mind is their vociferous support and the sea of red that comes to cheer them in huge numbers at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. To say that the fans are Persepolis’ 12th man will be an understatement because they are much more than that for the football club.

It has been reported that the fan base of the club stands well over a whopping 40 million with supporters not just limited to Iran but also scattered around neighbouring countries. And these fans have kept the club moving in the right direction even when off-field events and internal politics have threatened to hamper its progress.

“It’s like Persepolis never lose at the Azadi Stadium. The fans make it very difficult for any team who face them,” Iranian great Ali Daei said recently. “I know how the supporters drive the players forward and give them confidence. Even when the club have a lot of problems, the fans counterbalance them, and this is an advantage Persepolis have over every other club,” said the former Persepolis player.

What will be different this time will be the presence of women at the Azadi. Iran is finally opening up its sports venues for women and in June, women were allowed for the first time in 37 years to watch a screening of Iran vs Spain at the Azadi Stadium. And it’s being reported that they will be allowed in for the second leg of the ACL final as well. A welcome change and good news all around!

4. Their rivalry with Esteghlal is one of the fiercest in the world

Persepolis’ encounters with Esteghlal are a spectacle in Asian football and the two teams have built up one of the fiercest rivalries in world football. While Esteghlal (previously known as Taj, meaning the crown) were the team supported by the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza, Persepolis appealed to the young and working class demography of Tehran and Iran.

The Tehran derby, locally known as the Sorkhabi derby, has seen its fair share of riots and violence over the years with fans getting embroiled in altercations and physical fights with opposition players and referees forcing the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran to deploy foreign referees for the fixture since 1995.

The Azadi Stadium where the two teams have played since the 1970s are split into halves of red (Persepolis) and blue (Esteghlal) for the derby matches — a symbolic representation of how the intense rivalry between the two top Iranian clubs have divided Tehran and even Iran into two distinct groups. You are either Persepolis or Esteghlal if you are in Tehran!

5. They have been perennial underachievers in Asia and are looking to change that

 

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Despite being one of the biggest names in Iran — they have won 11 league titles since 1971 — Persepolis have been largely underwhelming at Asian competitions. Their only success at a continental level came in 1991 when they emerged winners in the inaugural Asian Cup Winners’ Cup — a short-lived competition for domestic cup winners from AFC’s member association.

Their best effort in Asia has been third-place finishes in the Asian Club Championship, the predecessor to the Champions League, in 1996-97, 1999-2000 and 2000-01. After the inception of the ACL, the reached the semifinals last season getting knocked out by Saudi Professional League side Al Hilal 6-2 on aggregate.

Their archrivals Esteghlal, meanwhile, have won Asia’s top prize twice in their history — in 1970 and 1990 as well as finishing runners-up in 1991 and 1999. And that fact will be in the back of the minds of Persepolis fans and players as they go up against Japan’s Antlers — they have been in the shadows of the Blues for long when it comes to continental triumph and they’d be keen to change it!

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