Al-Monitor – The international governing body of soccer, FIFA, does not grant any individual or legal entity the right to control more than one member club at the same time. However, this rule has often been ignored in Iran, where two of the capital’s most prominent soccer clubs, Esteghlal and Persepolis, are owned by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports. This ownership has caused many challenges and tensions over the years. The latest incident involves the public criticism that has followed the sports ministry’s decision to cover the two clubs’ hefty debts last month. The question being asked is why are public funds being used for this purpose? And why are these clubs not transferred to the private sector?
The 85th Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis was held Oct. 26. The match drew close to 85,000 fans to Tehran’s Azadi stadium, a venue that is also owned by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports but rented out to the two clubs. However, this derby was different in terms of how tickets for it were sold.
For years, Iran’s Football Federation and the Premier League oversaw all ticket sales. However, on Oct. 23, 2010, during President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second term, this responsibility was granted to the Borhan Mobin company. This followed the signing of a contract between Iran’s Physical Education Organization, which at the time had control of Persepolis and Esteghlal, and the Office of the Vice Presidency for Science and Technology. The contract, said to have been valid until 2025, said Borhan Mobin was to receive 35% of all ticket sales, with 10% going to the Football Federation, 5% to the Premier League and 5% to the Tehran Province League. Game expenses associated with the police force and city transportation were to be deducted from ticket sales.
However, the release of this document by sports outlets in August was followed by many objections, prompting the managers of Esteghlal and Perspolis to call for an annulment of the deal and for the responsibility for ticket sales to be given to the clubs. The two teams urged their fans to stop purchasing tickets from Borhan Mobin; this created challenges right up to the doors of the Azadi stadium. Ultimately, the Football Federation unilaterally terminated the contract and allowed the clubs to sell tickets for the season.
Mohammad Khabiri, the vice president of the Iranian Football Federation in 1997-2002, told Al-Monitor that ticket sales are just one example of the obstacles standing in the way of privatizing Iranian soccer. Khabiri said there are high risks involved in investing in this sector, noting, “Copyrights are not respected in Iranian soccer. The clubs’ products and brand lose their value because they are easily copied. The revenues made from advertisements around the soccer field, the sale of broadcast rights, [funds from] monetary supporters … are very small and cannot be considered as financial resources.” He said rules that would give clubs more control over such revenues are not enforced.
Khabiri was referring to the Premier League’s charter, which went into force in 2001 when Iran’s professional soccer league began. The charter calls for rights to be obtained for TV broadcasts, for military and political organizations to stay out of soccer club business, for there to be soccer field standards, and, in general, for there to be privatization of clubs.
The implementation of this charter has not been not easy, particularly when it comes to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). IRIB is a state-owned organization that according to Iranian law has the sole rights to anything aired on Iranian television. Also, the head of this organization is selected by Iran’s supreme leader and its budget is defined in line with the government budget every year.
Therefore, when it comes to soccer clubs selling broadcast rights for their games, they have no other option but IRIB. Meanwhile, IRIB has managed to pay the club very little in recent years, citing the absence of laws requiring payment and its limited financial resources. This issue has become an increased source of tension between IRIB, the soccer federation and the Premier League in recent months.
On Oct. 31, Esteghlal played against Sanate Naft Tehran in Azadi stadium and IRIB was given permission to broadcast the game live; however, as a result of a conflict over the broadcast, IRIB cameras shot the match at such angles that none of the ads in the stadium were shown. Soccer authorities then had stadium billboards say, “We apologize to the noble people of Iran for IRIB’s non-standard coverage of the game.”
The privatization of sports was among President Hassan Rouhani’s campaign promises during the 2013 presidential election. In February 2014, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports appointed Amir Reza Khadem, a former wrestling world champion and member of parliament, as its special representative in the privatization process of Persepolis and Esteghlal. After a one-year process, the Iranian Privatization Organization ultimately decided to auction the two clubs in February 2015, with a total value of 2.9 trillion rials ($82.3 million) as the base price. About one month later, the Iranian Privatization Organization called off the auction, citing the absence of any bidders.
Khabiri said the fact that the two clubs were not sold to the private sector was a positive omen, since in his opinion it would have resulted in an even worse situation. He said the conditions are not yet right for such a move. “It is not clear [what] the sources of income would be. … Another problem is the two clubs’ negative financial balance. Privatization must be a process.”
On Nov. 11, Iran’s ISNA news agency warned of the serious likelihood that Iran would be eliminated from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League in the coming year, because the league plans to no longer tolerate any state-owned clubs. Up until then, Esteghlal and Persepolis also faced being banned from playing in the AFC Champions League because of their debts. Fans, fearing the removal of their teams, appealed to the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports to pay off the debts. Their appeal was answered Oct. 31, when government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht told a news conference, “The administration will pay the debts of Esteghlal and Persepolis. We will not let these two clubs face difficulties. Don’t worry.”
Khabiri said this was not the right move to make and will only result in a loss of independence for the soccer clubs. Referring to government interference in soccer and other related issues as a violation of FIFA rules, he said, “We have given FIFA many tools for suspending our soccer. Our soccer was suspended once before due to government interference in the management of the soccer federation. Unfortunately, we are asleep like a rabbit.”
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Zahra Alipour is an Iranian journalist based in Paris who focuses on cultural affairs. She has reported for several leading Iranian media outlets.