Football

Balls Remembers: Ireland's Journey To Tehran In 2002, An Away Trip Unlike Any Other

Balls Remembers: Ireland's Journey To Tehran In 2002, An Away Trip Unlike Any Other

On this day 20 years ago, the Irish football team were lining up in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran against Iran. They were favourites to go through to the World Cup, having won the first leg of the play-off 2-0 and possessing a comfortably stronger starting XI.

Rather annoyingly for Ireland however, is that there were roughly 64,000 more people in the stadium than there was the week previously in the old Lansdowne Road. Of the 100,000 fans packed into the Azadi, 99,000 of them were cheering thunderously for Iran.

Qualification processes have rarely been fair to the Irish team, and even after going unbeaten in their qualification group that featured Portugal and the Netherlands, the powers that be had put this one last hurdle in their way.

Nothing conveyed the passion of Iranian football than the words of their coach Miroslav Blasevic in the lead up to the game. He had clearly bought into this passion and mixed with a bit of Croatian madness brought a rather extreme pledge from the manager if Iran were to lose their AFC play-off to the United Arab Emirates, and of the Ireland match he said, “It is still the same. If we fail now, I will hang myself from the crossbar on the pitch.”

"I know and respect Ireland because there has been many years of friendship between this country and me, so I hope you will all grieve for me if it happens."

Unfortunately it would take a lot more than Blasevic’s fulfilling his promise, to dampen Irish celebrations if they were to qualify for an international football tournament.

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Another aspect of the Iranian fans fanaticism was their attitude towards women and their participation in football.

Women had been forbidden from watching matches at the Azadi since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

And thus the most historically relevant aspect of this event came to pass when it was announced that - after initial refusal - a certain number of female Irish fans would be allowed enter the stadium.

Former Ireland footballer and famous travel agent Ray Treacy reported from Tehran that the women would be “accommodated in VIP area of the stadium.”

This turned out to be far from the truth, and the experiences of Irish women at the game, who were required to wear hijabs, were not ones to be looked back fondly upon.

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Writing for The Observer, Nicola Byrne gave a damning and comprehensive recap of these experiences.

“He was being forced to make history and he was furious. The security guard did little to hide his wrath as he reluctantly opened a small gate to allow the first women into Iran's imposing Azadi Stadium since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The gate slammed shut behind us.

Eyes blazing, he screamed at me to cover up a strand of hair which had escaped from under my hejab veil. To watch the World Cup play-off football match between Ireland and Iran, I and 40 other Irish women had applied for official dispensation from the Iranian government to attend the game last week.

Walking up the steps towards the ugly concrete bowl, it soon became clear it was a concession to which many men in the stadium were vehemently opposed. The reaction to our presence was comical, aggressive and disturbing.”

Although not nearly as vicious as the situation the women were experiencing in stands, out on the pitch the team had their hands full in what was a nervy performance at times.

Shay Given was nearly beaten on a couple of occasion and was forced into an edge-of-your-seat double save in the second half.

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As the minutes wound down, the restlessness and anger of the fans grew, as fires were lit in the stands and the number of smoke bombs and missiles increased.

Writing for the Irish Independent from Tehran, Alan O'Keeffe described the frenetic final minutes of the match inside the stadium.

In the dying minutes of the game, khaki-clad troops wielding long batons rushed Iranian fans beside the Irish enclosure on the upper tier of the giant stadium after a few plastic bottles and buns were thrown at the Irish.

The soldiers rapidly cleared a 20-yard safety cordon around the Irish fans.

Some bottles were also thrown on to the pitch.

A late goal just before the final whistle would not be enough to prevent the jubilant celebrations of the Irish players and staff.

Given the number of home fans and the state of grievance they were in, these celebrations look risky in hindsight, and the relief and joy of the Irish team seemingly overcame any sense of the mood in the stands.

And so the they had overcome the hurdle that was Iran, not just their football team but their fans and their extreme football culture. Ireland had reached its third World Cup in surreal circumstances. Unfortunately, there were a few more bumps on the road to come for Ireland's journey on its journey to Japan/South Korea.

See Also: In Pictures - The Joyous And Surreal Scenes When Ireland Qualified For The 2002 World Cup

 

 

Colman Stanley

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