For this interview, I ask Norwegian Blogger Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual on his trip to Iran in 2014 to watch Football (Soccer) matches.
Mr. Aasan is one of the duo that make up the fantastic website http://italia1990.com.
The Interview will be in written blog as well as with a video companion.
Mr. Aasan’s contact info:
On Twitter: @1990qual
My contact information:
on twitter @sp1873 and on facebook under Soccernostalgia.
Soccernostalgia Question: Introduction: For those who may not be familiar, can you introduce yourself and discuss your website?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I am Joachim Aasan, aged 49, from Oslo, Norway. I'm one of two behind the yet progressing http://italia1990.com website, which was launched back in 2016. I have a general interest in football, although regarding contemporary stuff I've gradually been losing my curiousity, so it is mainly football on a nostalgic level which does it for me nowadays. As I grew up being a football fan in the 80s, it is predominantly that decade which remains the object of my efforts.
Soccernostalgia Question: How did your decision to travel to Iran to watch Football matches come about?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: As I'd been following their build-up to the 2014 World Cup and indeed through the tournament itself, I'd developed some kind of a bond, albeit in a loose sense of the term. I would probably not have got round to spending two weeks in Iran had it not been for the fact that I'd taken an interest in their campaign that summer, though as I'd become rather fond of some of the players, I thought it might be a fine idea to visit a mythical country and at the same time see some of Iran's World Cup players perform on the domestic stage. I became increasingly keen on the prospect of going the more I thought about it, until I'd one day made my mind up to pay the country a visit. I believe the decision was made within weeks of Team Melli's exit from the World Cup, and I'd travel in late August and stay until early September, with a total of two weeks in Iran.
Soccernostalgia Question: Can you go into the online threads on Football in Norway and how popular are these?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I used to frequent a message board which was well visited at the time, and while most participants on the board's section for international football would naturally root for the bigger and more fancied nations (and ditto for football at club level), I was more keen on the underground scene, so to speak. I won't say that we were aplenty, but there were a couple of others who seemed to share or harbour a curiousity for the lesser teams, and also some who did not mind to dip their feet into the pool of nostalgia. This website gradually subsided in registered visitors, and ultimately timed out. While it subsequently was replaced by another message board, it is no longer quite the same experience, with some of the previous participants no longer engaging, or engaging to a much smaller extent.
Soccernostalgia Question: Why did you pick Iran as the team to follow on this particular thread?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: Well, back in 2014, with the World Cup coming up, I was sort of attempting to build an interest for the tournament, and I thought it might be an alright bet to try and follow a particular nation. It is not that I have anything against the more recognized nations on the global scene, but I admit to taking a particular liking to the lesser ones, and it was from this point of view that the idea developed that I'd try and find out about the Iranian team. Why Iran? While I won't necessarily call it a coincidence, they were there to be found out about, and in retrospect I am delighted that I did. Little did I know at the time that I'd be spending part of my summer holidays in the country.
Soccernostalgia Question: Explain the process of analyzing Iran’s 2014 World Cup team on your thread?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I can't say that my analysis were neither very thorough nor, probably, too precise. However, as I do like to not always leave things to chance, I had felt an urge to update myself on the team and player situation prior to the tournament, hence my interest to watch some of their pre-World Cup warm-up games. It had not been difficult to see how their Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz had wanted a strong emphasis on defence, and they were rarely willing to commit several players in the forward direction at the same time. With each passing friendly, I also developed a liking to some of the individuals in the team, and full-back Pejman Montazeri, central defender Amir Hossein Sadeghi and midfield man Ehsan Hajsafi were indeed early favourites. I also enjoyed seeing forward Karim Ansarifard in action.
Soccernostalgia Question: At what point did you decide to spend your holidays in Iran and what was it exactly about your analysis on the Team that made you decide? Had you taken similar trips abroad before?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I've briefly touched on your first question already, as the decision was made either whilst the tournament was still ongoing or just in its wake. I've always been a keen traveler, although whenever I'd been on football journeys previously, it had with almost no exceptions been with England as destination. I enjoyed going the short distance from home across the North Sea to England, where I'd predominantly take in matches in the lower ranks of the Football League or, indeed, at non-league level. I'd often make use of a hire car to take me around, arranging an itinerary well in advance of the journey, and so having plenty of time to sort out accommodation beforehand. It would typically be a low-cost B&B, and I had the pleasure of visiting numerous little towns which are not so often frequented by football followers from abroad. This interest eventually died out around 2016/17, as I'd met a woman who wanted to accompany me on life's journey. I won't say I was a typical groundhopper, as there were plenty of teams I paid two or more visits, though my stadium count in England is 110, of which probably 80-85 are from below Football League level.
Soccernostalgia Question: Given restrictions, was it easy to obtain a visa to go to Iran to watch Football matches or was it straightforward?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: With this now being a few years ago, I do not have entirely clear in my memory neither how the process progressed nor the precise time span of it, but I do not think it took more than three weeks to obtain the visa. All correspondence obviously went through the Iranian embassy in Oslo, and they always gave a very helpful impression. There was never any expressions of doubt with regards to whether or not I'd obtain the visa.
Soccernostalgia Question: How did the Iranian authorities react when you explained that you were traveling for Football Tourism?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I do not think I had stated particularly in the visa application that I went with a view to watching Iranian league football. I rather emphasized that I was visiting as a tourist. They saw no issues with that, although Iran were not, at that point in time at least, awfully accustomed to visitors from Western European countries.
Soccernostalgia Question: What city was your first destination and Why? What match did you watch in Fooladshahr and describe the experience in and out of the stadium?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: With two weeks in Iran on the agenda, I opted to head for Isfahan first, as the idea from a footballing perspective was to get the opportunity to see Ehsan Hajsafi in action. He was one of Isfahan club Sepahan's major stars, and during that week they were listed to play Foolad in their temporary home, which was Zob Ahan's Fooladshahr Stadium. Fooladshahr is a town approximately half an hour to Isfahan's south west, although my initial challenge had been to get to Isfahan from Tehran, as my international flight had obviously reached the Iranian capital. The arrival had been in the early hours of the morning, and I'd subsequently hop in a taxi which would take me to the city's 'Terminal e-Jonoob', its southern bus terminal. With Isfahan, a historical city some 350 kilometer to Tehran's south, quite a journey away, I progressed to purchase a VIP ticket on a coach which I had employees confirm to me at least from two separate sources that was indeed headed to Isfahan. I quickly realized that English was a relatively rare commodity, and, alas, I'd not completed a 'how to speak Farsi in 30 days' course.
Upon arrival in Isfahan some six or seven hours after departure from Tehran, I caught a cab from the city's bus station to the hotel where I'd booked for the entire week, situated in the city's Jolfa area, which consists predominantly of Christians of Armenian descent. It was not difficult to appreciate Isfahan's somewhat dry beauty upon arrival. The main river had completely dried up, and so the famous Si-o-se-pol bridge was left in less demand, as you could easily walk dry-footed from one side of the Zayandeh Rud bank to the other.
With just the solitary match on my Isfahan agenda, I had plenty of time to live out the tourist in me, and I was often approached by locals who wanted to have a chat, and some were even after a selfie with a strange-looking westerner. I only met friendly faces wherever I ventured, and everyone went out of their way to try and answer any question I might have. Naturally, most people were wondering what I was doing in a) Iran and b) Isfahan, although when I told them that I'd been so inspired by Team Melli at the summer's World Cup that I had wished to come and watch some of the national team's players in action at domestic level, I am not sure they quite understood. I informed that I intended to go to Fooladshahr and take in the Sepahan v Foolad fixture, which would be played on the Friday after my Monday arrival. Thursday and Friday are the pair of weekend days in Iran, rather than Saturday and Sunday as we're used to in my part of the civilization, and I had found kick-off time on some league website. However, I had not quite managed to interpret it correctly, so upon arrival in Fooladshahr by cab, I quickly realized how there would have to be some serious waiting. I had seen it as a 4.30pm kick-off, something which would've been strange, as the temperature was close to boiling (around 36-37 at this time). Outside the stadium there was no-one, although in some green lungs nextdoor, a welcoming group of people were sat having tea in the yellow replica shirts of the home side. They had acknowledged the foreigner who was looking a little bewildered, and soon enough I was invited over for a cuppa. I realized they were a family, although their level of English was not of such a standard that regular communication was possible. Still, and don't ask me how, we ended up going through the line-ups of World Cup finalists and winners from 1986 and onwards a few tournaments. How could I not enjoy myself.
The 7pm kick-off, as I had learned, was still some time away, though gradually fans were starting to arrive, and were queueing up outside the entrance gate. There were little ticket kiosks where you'd purchase your access, and I was quite pleased once I'd shed enough money to earn mine. I received plenty of looks and even a few thumbs ups as I joined the increasing line of people waiting for the gate to open, and I was beginning to feel excited at the prospect of seeing Hajsafi, no less, in action. As the gate started to let people through, I was ushered to the side once I'd shown my ticket, and with limited English I was told: "VIP!" I wasn't quite sure how I would qualify for such treatment, but I realized soon enough that it wasn't a visit in the executive boxes that had been in plan for me. "VIP" once again was a vague term, like I had experienced when purchasing a "VIP" bus ticket for the journey between Tehran and Isfahan. I never quite got the difference between Persian VIP and an ordinary ticket (if there ever was one). I was shown to the main stand, where I was seated among what I assumed to be home supporters, although I noticed how the fans on the far side were standing and already in good voice. Perhaps had the guards not wanted the foreigner among them.
I got to talking with a few fans, and to my massive disappointment I quickly learnt that Hajsafi would not be playing. Sepahan were early season pace-setters in the Iranian Pro-League, but they would have to make do without their star player, as he was allegedly in talks with English club Hull City (!) about a transfer. I had, at that point, never yet been in Hull, but instinctively I thought to myself: "How could anyone in their right mind even consider to swap this pearl of a city (Isfahan, that is, not Fooladshahr, which I had not had the opportunity to see) with a rainy, heavily industrialized northern English city?"
Rumours in my section of the stand turned out to be correct; there was no Hajsafi among the eleven home players who took to the field. I had no problems admitting that the game had lost a dimension to me, though I did try to appreciate the fact that I would still be seeing some of the players who had participated in the build-up to the World Cup, in the shape of attacking players Sharifi and Khalatbari. Also, goalkeeper Raman Ahmadi had indeed travelled to Brazil, but remained understudy to the elegant Alireza Haghighi throughout the tournament. Sepahan's manager was Croat Zlatko Kranjčar, who had previously been in charge of both his native country as well as Montenegro, in addition to a host of club sides in various countries. Kranjčar would, perhaps harshly, be relieved of his duties only a few weeks later, with Sepahan fourth in the table.
The evenly fought contest ended in a 1-1 draw, and it had, after all, been a terrific experience to be present for an Iranian topflight fixture.
|Si-o-se-pol bridge on a completely dry river Zayandeh Rud in Isfahan|
|Nagsh-e-Jahan Square in Isfahan|
1) The family encountered outside the stadium in Fooladshahr
1) The visitors warming up.
Soccernostalgia Question: Describe your next destination, Tehran, how did you travel and the reason you were going there?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: After an excellent week in a dry but welcoming Isfahan, it was time to head north for the bustling metropolis which was (and still very much is) Tehran. I had not had a single bad experience during my time in the country's historical and architectonic pearl, though I was looking forward to meeting the iconic capital. Once again I boarded the coach with a 'VIP' ticket, and I was quite pleased to register how the vehicle was an upgraded and distinctly newer model than the one which had brought me in the other direction. The stream of cool, conditioned air was very welcome to someone whose location of origin rarely exceeds 25 degrees even during high summer, as even though it was fairly early in the day, we were well into the 30s (or 90s to those more accustomed to the use of the Fahrenheit scale).
On its way north, the bus made a stop just about halfway through its route. This appeared to be right in the middle of the desert, and the temperature was a staggering 43 Celsius. While most of the passengers headed straight for the cool haven of the restaurant, I decided to go and sit on a bench outside to take in the sweltering heat. I managed for the best part of 30 seconds. It was almost unbearable. I dread to think that this is becoming the norm even in southern parts of Europe with the climate changes which are occuring.
It was impossible to spend two weeks in Iran without making Tehran a destination. The coach rolled into the city's 'Argentina (Arjantin) square', and I got off, yet not quite knowing how I would get to my hotel way out east in the metropolis, in the Tehranpars district. I subsequently found a gentleman who was not unwilling to give me a lift, although I admit I was slightly apprehensive when he led me to his car, which looked well past it. My suspicion had not been out of place. While the scale of the traffic in Tehran had been something which I had been pre-warned about, something which proved to be spot on, the driver and his vehicle were fighting it out between them to let out the greatest levels of frustration. The journey took about an hour, and on three separate occasions the engine stopped and seemingly refused to reignite, only to concur after a few attempts every time. I was pleased as the proverbial punch when the gentleman dropped me off outside my hotel, the Shahr.
While the room and not least its bed were spacious and modern, the bathroom's squat toilet was, to my taste at least, less impressive. I'd had European levels commodities in Isfahan. Anyway, who was I to complain? It was time to head into the city centre, wherever that was, and check out what Tehran had to offer. I will cut a long story short and just say that I remained with an overwhelming feeling throughout my week. Istanbul was perhaps the only city where I had previously visited which had instilled the same amount of 'wow' factor in me, and as I walked around, trying to take in the mere fact that I was in the heart of the Persians' capital city, I was left mesmerized. The metro line from Tehranpars and eastwards into the city's central areas was spottlessly clean and effective, although it was odd to witness first hand the segregation between genders from one car to another.
Soccernostalgia Question: What match did you watch in Tehran?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: Both the game which I'd watched in Isfahan (Fooladshahr) and now in Tehran had been decided beforehand. I had wanted to visit the famous Azadi Stadium, the country's national arena, and while I do not wish to step on anyone's feelings, it had not mattered a great deal to me whether I would see Esteghlal or Persepolis, the city's, and country's, undoubtedly two most iconic and even most decorated clubs. As it turned out, Esteghlal were the ones to play at home this weekend (Friday, I believe). They were up against Gostaresh of Tabriz, which is in the country's north western corner, not too far away from the borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While I say that it had been more or less irrelevant whether I watched Esteghlal or Persepolis, I should add that this was not entirely accurate. While Ehsan Hajsafi of Sepahan had been my number one priority to see in action, Team Melli's central defender Amir Hossein Sadeghi had been another major personal favourite of mine during the World Cup. He had featured alongside Persepolis' Jalal Hosseini at the heart of Iran's defence in Brazil, and both had looked dependable players. Esteghlal, which name translates into 'Independiente' in Spanish, also had the charismatic Andrik Teymourian, an energetic midfielder, within their ranks, so I was hoping to see in action at least two of Team Melli's World Cup stars. They also had Khosro Heydari, who had played a bit-part role during the summer's global event, even though he was a well-reputed player within the game domestically. As for the opponents, Gostaresh, I had no knowledge whatsoever. None of their players had participated in South America.
Soccernostalgia Question: Describe the Azadi stadium in Tehran, what was the atmosphere like?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: Since I was situated far east in the metropolis, the national team stadium was a bit of a trek away, slightly to the city core's west. I had realized that there was no metro station in its immediate vicinity, so I made my way to the nearest one, where I found out that there were buses designed to transport fans to the stadium. After nearly two weeks in the country, I had got used to making use of sign and body languages in order to make myself understood, and after some quick negotiating, I was soon on my way in an overcrowded bus. Since I had arrived in Iran, I had barely seen anyone else looking like foreign tourists (although I had had a chat with an Italian couple while taking in the sights of the world heritage monument which was Tehran's magnificent Golestan Palace), so I was already well accustomed to being the odd man out. I have never been someone seeking attention, and I was never really comfortable with being a focal point. The locals were never shy of asking where I was from, and I could just as well have gone along with their assumption of me being German.
The Azadi stadium is situated in the heart of a huge sports complex, where there's all sorts of sporting activities going on. The bus stop was only a few hundred meters away from the entrance to the stadium, and on this occasion I had at least not got the kick-off time wrong. As I arrived outside the gate, plenty of fans were already making their way through, and I purchased my ticket in one boot, which saw me ushered towards the next one for verification (as I understood it). Then I was inside, and I made my way along the concourse, with plenty of attention from the locals still.
In the past, I'd heard how Team Melli had seen attendance figures well above 100 000 for big fixtures, and once I made it to the stand where I was supposed to be seated, I could eventually take in the stadium's enormity. The main section, which was where I was seated, was fitted with customary plastic seats, while the opposite stand was largely for standing, or at least its upper tier; I can't remember too precisely. With kick-off looming, I estimated the crowd to be in the 15 000 region, although any figure guessed would likely be far from accurate. I had the pleasure of engaging in conversation with a gentleman who spoke a flawless English, better than mine, and he introduced me to the customs of Esteghlal's supporters. I was sat amidst plenty of fans in replica shirts, while on the tier above mine there appeared to be standing support, which was probably where the more vocal ones were situated.
I was delighted to learn that centre-back Sadeghi was indeed in the starting line-up, so finally I had got what I had travelled far to see, with his inclusion being to some extent a compensation for the lack of Hajsafi turning out for Sepahan the previous week. There was no Teymourian, though, as I learnt he had not yet featured since the World Cup. He was on the bench, so I did have a hope of him making at least a substitute appearance.
As for the atmosphere, it was obviously difficult for the fans in such a big stadium to generate noise which would reverberate around and leave a major impression, although those who were there gave it their best go.
It was particularly pleasing to see a spotless performance by the impressive Sadeghi, while Teymourian would start warming up behind the goal to my right early in the second half, and he was introduced as a substitute past the hour. He received a fine ovation from the crowd, and appeared to be a popular figure among the home supporters. Esteghlal were in control for most of the match, and ran out comprehensive winners: 3-0. Heydari also appeared.
The return back to my hotel was slightly more complicated, as there seemed to be no buses in operation from the area where they had dropped fans off prior to the game. I decided to follow pockets of people whom I hoped were looking for public means of transports (anyone I asked just shrugged and had no purposeful reply), and I was right. Eventually, I was able to get on a bus which took me to a metro station, from which I could make my way back. Even the nearest station to where the hotel was was only situated a brisk 20 minutes walk away, although in such temperatures, even well after sunset, you would never run the risk of being cold.
|Nearing the time for kick-off.|
Soccernostalgia Question: What was the difference between Fooladshahr and Tehran football crowd?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I am not sure there was much of a difference between them, or at least not that I was ever aware of. The scale of the stadium in Tehran made sure that whatever noise was caused by the fans would drown on its way across to the other sections, and as I was sat more or less directly underneath the tier above me, I could also not see what the fans who were gathered there were up to. Where I was sat, I would occasionally join in, more or less voluntarily, when the fans grabbed their seat neighbour around the neck and began swaying from one side to another. In Fooladshahr, the home support had been relatively vocal on the far side, and looked to be quite organized in the way they had huddled together around the centre of the stand.
Soccernostalgia Question: Not knowing the language how did you get by on your typical day? How was your communication with locals?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: As I've touched on, this was not always straightforward. I should possibly have made better research, but it had surprised me a little that so few that I came across were capable of speaking much English, or at least beyond the very basic levels. Still, there was no end to how keen they were on approaching you, as I clearly did not look like your average Persian. They wanted to know a) where I came from and b) what my impression of their country was. I was always genuinely replying that Iran had made a wonderful impression, both in terms of what I had seen and experienced, but also through the friendliness of whomever crossed my path. Despite the problems in communication, the good intent was always there to see.
With Farsi also having their own numbers, not just letters (alphabet), it was near impossible for me to make even half-educated attempts at guessing what was written on any board or information sign. Buying food/products was never a challenge, and there were obviously restaurants with food just about as delicious as one could imagine. I am far from your typical vegetarian, so I indulged in any meat-containing meal which I could track down.
Throughout my two weeks in Iran, there were tropical temperatures, although the country's well-known ban on any alcoholic beverage saw to that I could not quench my thirst with a frothing cup of ale at any point. I easily admit I would have done so in any country which had no such restrictions, but not having a single drop of alcohol during a two weeks holiday was not a problem whatsoever. I had thought I had come across a bar selling the famous nectar while I was in Isfahan, as I had seen people a few tables away being introduced to cans of what looked like perfectly issued Holsten to me, although upon ordering one myself, I immediately realized that they were, obviously, non-alcoholic.
Soccernostalgia Question: As a Norwegian, were the local population surprised to see a Westerner? Did they assume you may be journalist?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: Westerners were definitely very few and far between, both in Isfahan and in Tehran, at least wherever I went. I realized that they were delighted to approach me, although beyond initial phrases, very few were able to engage in a meaningful conversation. Those who were, though, always made sure to emphasize how they were glad to see someone from abroad visit, and not least in hearing how much I was enjoying my time there.
I was never asked whether I was a journalist. Those whom I encountered seemed to assume that I was, which was right, a visitor with few purposes other than engaging in discoveries of territory where few westerners ventured. I always appreciate being among locals wherever I go, so in that respect Iran made perfect sense to me. Not that I was comfortable when being approached on the street by people who wanted to have a selfie taken with myself.
Soccernostalgia Question: Before going to Iran, were you aware of the nature of the Tehran derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: Yes, I was. I was aware of its magnitude and its significance to football fans not just in Tehran, but throughout Iran and probably even beyond. I had read somewhere that the massive Tehran derby would often end in a draw, so as to upset as few fans as possible. Whether or not this was a factual truth, though, I won't engage in a debate on. I had also been aware that they would draw more or less a packed house at the national stadium whenever they met.
Soccernostalgia Question: Did you come away from the trip learning more about the National Team (Team Melli) or in retrospect it was the adventure and experience that was more satisfying?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I think you may be right in suggesting that I probably gained more from the journey on a personal level rather than learning more about Team Melli. Still, it was an experience which I would not have wanted to be without to actually be present at two Iranian topflight matches, and I would (and I am!) recommend to anyone to go and pay the country a visit, whatever their motivation or purpose would be. They won't be disappointed, and the chance that the experience would exceed their expectations is great.
Soccernostalgia Question: In closing, What was the best take-away from this experience on a personal level?
Mr. Joachim Aasan @1990qual response: I think the fact that you decide to visit somewhere which, if you were to believe some western media, was allegedly 'risky', as friends and family had also questioned my ambitions, is particularly satisfying. I am hardly a more adventurous person than the average Joe, though I do not understand why anyone would think visiting Iran is a risk. Anyone, American, Brit, Norwegian or whoever, would feel very welcome; that is my belief. A small part of my aim had indeed been to prove to any doubter that Iran was a country which would welcome its visitors, and there had beforehand never been a split second's doubt in my mind that I was doing the right thing.
Since I just saw two matches during the visit, the journey was about more than just football. I may not be the most knowledgeable person around when it comes to history, but no one can go to Iran and not appreciate the richness of heritage which the region contains.
1-Please refer to the video link at the top of this blog upload for the interview and discussion regarding this trip.
2-All the photos provided by Mr. Joachim Aasan.