"Death to the dictator! Death to the dictator! Death to the dictator!״ sung thousands of fans with red shirts in the stand.
This wasn’t a scene from the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Basque region in the 1960’s or Romania in the last days of Ceaușescu. Nor is it a line from a Charlie Chaplin or a Sacha Baron Cohen feature. It happened exactly two months ago at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, when Tractor Sazi from Tabriz arrived in the city to play against local Esteghlal, in the Persian Gulf League, Iran's top league.
The song from the beginning of the article was devoted by Tractor fans to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian ruler. This is the call that echoed in all demonstrations against the regime in Iran last year, mainly on the background of the worsening economic crisis in the country. Police forces have beaten and arrested fans until the singing stopped. Tractor lost 3-0, but it did not stop the fans from singing it at the end of the game as well, as the Iranian television broadcast lowered the sound from the field.
This event is only a small part of the fascinating mosaic map called Tractor Sazi. One of the most exciting clubs in the Middle East, perhaps in the world, in the most hectic season it has ever known, and it is only October.
Azerbaijan is Here
In 1970, almost a decade before the Islamic revolution in Iran, the Iranian government tractor company in Tabriz, which also dealt with the development of heavy industry in the country, decided to establish a football team for factory workers and the city's residents.
It was the desire to strengthen the connection between the company and the state, to the citizens. They decided to name the club after the company's leading product - tractor manufacturing, hence the unique name of the team, which often is used as a joking material among western football fans. The thing with Tractor (or Tirakhtor, as pronounced by locals) is that the name is probably one of the least special things about this club. Its identity, on the other hand, is a completely different story.
As mentioned above, Tractor Sazi comes from the famous city of Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, close to the border with Azerbaijan and Turkey, from a province called Eastern Azerbaijan.
About 1.7 million people live in the city, most of them are Azeri-Turks & Shiite Muslims, as well as Armenian-Christian, Kurds and Baha’is minorities. The spoken language in the province, unlike the rest of the country, is Azerbaijani-Turkish, despite the fact that the Iranian authorities have excluded it from the public sphere and even banned it from schools. According to some, Azerbaijani-Turkish is on the verge of being considered a language endangered with distinction in Iran.
Yet, in the Tractor stands you don’t hear any other language. "I don’t want to get involved in the political side of it too much, but if you look at it deeply, the need for the Azeri contingent to relate themselves so much to a football club that their love for it goes further than just footballing reasons. It becomes a symbol of their identity, could be due to the fact that they feel underrepresented in the society and slightly ignored”, explains Sina Saemian, an Iranian football expert and a regular panelist at the sublime Iranian football podcast, Golbezan. "An Azeri can be a fan of Esteghlal, but Tractor will always be his first team, his basics, mainly due to an identity issue."
In what has started as a leisure time solution for the residents and the workers of Tabriz, it then became a powerful brand over the years. Nowadays, Tractor is one of the most popular teams in Iran. In 2013, the club’s official fan club registered 482,000 members. Alongside the popular football team, the club has teams for futsal, basketball, volleyball, taekwondo, baseball and soon, according to some reports, E-Sports too. In addition, Tractor is very popular in the state of Azerbaijan and parts of eastern Turkey.
All of these make Tractor Sazi a regional mega-club in the making, with a clear cultural identity - the Azerbaijani club of Iran, and all that it comes with. The Tabrizians, in a way, are treated as sort of ‘outsiders’ in Persian society, especially for those who live in Tehran, and this issue does not skip football.
The Red Wolves Are Coming
Since their foundation, the Kizil Kurtlar - the Red Wolves - have never been at the top of Persian football. In its earlier years the team has mainly shuffled in the second division. After the revolution came, football in Iran stopped for a few years, only to return in the format of provincial selections, while Tractor was getting promoted and relegated between the first two divisions.
Although it has been playing in the Asian Champions League for the past five years, Tractor has won only one significant title in its 48 years of existence - the Persian Hfazi Cup in 2014. To the fans by the way, it does not matter at all.
Almost every Tractor’s home game at the Yadegar-e Emam Stadium is full with 66,000 fans if not more. For them it does not matter whether the team is in a good form, bad form, leads the table or rocking the bottom. They come to wave the flag of the Azeri periphery, within Iran. "Tractor, the pride of our country, the hero of the Azeri people," is the anthem of the group and one of the most popular fan songs in Iran.
Despite the lack of significant sportive achievements, Tractor is considered a huge club in Iran. The Azeri Turks always claim discrimination by the authorities. Not all fans of Tractor are of Azeri or Turkish origin, but also those who are fed up with the dominance of the Tehran clubs, Esteghlal and Persepolis, which are usually splitting the titles among them. Tractor, symbolizes an alternative to the social elite of the capital, and only then challenges the government. Every time they come to Tehran to play against one of the two big ones, tens of thousands support them in Azadi, and not just from the Azeri community in the city. It will almost always end with violence and arrests, as if for every club that is basically the symbol of a minority that seeks recognition. "It has caused a lot of headaches for the IFF and the Sports Ministry to deal with it accordingly”, Saemian indicates. “They’ve been punished on multiple occasions for different reasons using different punishment methods. From having matches played behind closed doors to heavy fines. But we both know that it won’t stop. It might help reduce it on occasions but with the current political climate, it’s unlikely to fully stop".
In 2018, the club was bought by Mohammed Reza Zonouzi, a local billionaire who owns ATA Airlines, Bank of Saman, Bank of Gardeshgari and Bonyan Diezel factory, and others. In 2011, according to various reports, his fortune was estimated at 4 billion dollars, but this fact has never been confirmed. When Zonouzi arrived, the rush has started.
In the last World Cup, the economic sanctions on Iran imposed by the US, have begun to seep into the world of football. A few days before the opening whistle of Team Melli's first match against Morocco, Nike asked eight players from the Iranian team not to use their shoes while wearing Iranian team uniforms. The Iranian economy, which was already in a very precarious state that led to a wave of demonstrations in the country, would be seen at the point of no return.
A bit more than a month later, Zonouzi and Tractor dropped a first bomb. John Toshack, a Welsh football legend who worked at Sporting Lisbon, Real Sociedad and Real Madrid in the past, signed as the coach of the club. Toshack might be less relevant today in mainstream European football, after years of training in Macedonia and Morocco, but he was a good choice for Zonouzi and his project. Aside from the fact that he won the Azeri Super Cup in 2013 with Khazar Lankran in Azerbaijan, he drew attention of European players to Tabriz.
A month passed, and it began: The first to land were Englishman Harry Forrester and Anthony Stokes of Ireland. Forrester, who played for England's youth teams until the age of 17, signed a two-year as a free-agent at Tractor after being released from Glasgow Rangers.
Stokes, an ex-Celtic and Arsenal striker, left Apollon Smyrna in April and signed for free as well. On his debut, Stokes scored a goal from 30 meters. The fans were thrilled. Such players do not come to Iran every day, and certainly not to a club like Tractor, which in the previous season finished 10th out of 16. They did not know what awaited them.
Zonouzi wanted to invest wisely. True, he has a popular team in Iran, with fans in neighboring countries, but the Asian connection was missing. With the exception of friendly games among neighbors who compete with European competitions, Tractor has no chance of playing Turkish or Azeri rivalries. Japan, on the other hand, is a different story.
Exactly two days later, Yukiya Sugita, a fast-paced Japanese player who played in Spain and Sweden, signed for an unknown sum for three years. Although ‘Sugi’ is not a player of the Japanese national team, Tractor Sazi was discussed in Japanese Television that week. Yet, the best was still waiting for the Red Wolves’ fans.
At the beginning of August, Tractor caused an earthquake in Iranian football. The two captains of the Iranian national team in the last World Cup, Masoud Shojaei and Ashkan Dejagah, from AEK Athens and Nottingham Forest respectively, signed at the club.
The photo of Zonousi with the two, waving the red shirt flooded he Internet in Iran. The fans went crazy: "Tractor signs bigger names than the teams from Tehran!”. A glimpse of a revolution feeling was present. That signing was followed by the one of Lee Erwin, a Scottish striker from Kilmarnock, and another big name’ signing - Ehsan Haj Safi, another notable national team player.
With the addition of a number of local talents, Tractor signed 18 new players, worth nearly 8 million dollars, while sanctions and inflation were raging in Iran, and the local currency was plummeting.
"There's no problem with wasting money if you have it," explains Saemian. "The point is that each of the foreigners gets a salary in dollars. This way, the money does not enter the cycle of the local football industry, but going out. The foreigners’ and Shojaei and Dajagah's contracts are signed in dollars. With the huge hit the Iranian currency got, paying in dollars simply does not help developing football in Iran. That’s one of my biggest issues, that this money is not being circulated inside Iran to help footballing economy”, he concluded. He has a point.
The Tractor is Sunk in the Mud
It is very hard to bring so many new players in, and succeed in the first season. As expected, Tractor’s tractor got stuck, earlier than everyone believed. After only two victories in the first six matchdays and a penalty shoot-out elimination from the Hafzi Cup, Tractor has sacked Toshack.
He was seen at Tabriz airport, early in the morning, a day before his team's game against Padideh, the league leaders table. The striker Forrester, who proved to be in bad shape, was also loaned to city rivals, with a not less binding name - Machine Sazi (“machines manufacturing"). Surprisingly or not, the owner of Machine, is no other than Zonouzi - the same owner of Tractor.
Now with Mohammed Taghavi as a temporary coach, the team looks better, and is currently seated in sixth place of the Persian Gulf League table, just four points from the first place, after winning 6-0 vs the 2016 champions Esteghlal Khuzestan. “He received his coaching badges from England and he is very well educated and a top rated coach”, Sina points out on the caretaker coach of Tractor. “He understands Iranian football but his coaching upbringing has been in Europe, so I think they are in safe hands with him, as he has showed so far. They shouldn’t be in much of a hurry to name a manager”.
Amongst the names mentioned as candidates to replace Toshack were Sven Goran Eriksson, former manager of the England team, Alexander Nouri, the German-Iranian of Ingolstadt, and none other than the Iranian national team coach, Portuguese Carlos Queiroz. There is no chance that Queiroz will leave Team Melli before the Asian Cup, but as you already figured, nothing in this season of Tractor Sazi can make much sense.