16
Nov
18

Antlers ascend to Asian throne in the Azadi

Kashima Antlers were crowned kings of Asia in style last weekend, braving the famed Azadi Stadium atmosphere to seal their maiden continental crown…  (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Friday 16th November, 2018

Buttocks.” The middle-aged nurse turned around and grabbed his cheeks to make sure I’d understood correctly.

It had come to this, then. After covering 14 games in this year’s ACL, enduring an anxious wait for an Iranian visa, and travelling over 5,000 miles, if I wanted to make the final I would need an injection in my behind on the morning of the match to calm an inopportune bout of food poisoning. Two, in fact.

It was a no-brainer. I rolled over on the bed and did what needed to be done.

And, my word, was it worth it. 

Anyone who has ever seen a game at the Azadi Stadium will tell you it is something you have to do if you get the chance, and I am now emphatically one of their ranks.

Built in the 1970s the Azadi is not an especially attractive venue, and the huge dusty bowl planted within a complex of various sporting facilities in the north-west of Tehran could certainly do with a lick of paint. Of course, the best sporting venues are rarely great in and of themselves though, and what makes them so is the fans inside and the atmosphere they create. In that respect the Azadi is far and away the best I have ever experienced.

There were signs I was in for something special when I paid a trip to the ground the day before Kashima Antlers took on Persepolis, with supporters already gathering outside the imposing entranceway to the compound. These fans had driven from all around Iran to be here for the game, and they would spend the rest of the day and overnight singing, dancing, honking their car horns and eating industrial amounts of pistachios as they waited for the gates to open.

At midday the next day, I was told – six-and-a-half hours before kick off – they would start pouring into the ground and ramping up their efforts to intimidate the opposition and will their team over the line.

Before leaving for Iran I spoke with former Shimizu S-Pulse manager Afshin Ghotbi, who led Persepolis to league glory in 2008 – his team sealing the title with a 96th-minute winner on the final day of the season at the Azadi – and he described the venue as, “the Colosseum of football pitches in Asia”, before explaining just how passionate a following Persepolis possess.

“Persepolis is one of the most popular, maybe the most popular, clubs in Asia because they have 30 million followers,” he said. “If you are a player or a coach with Persepolis and you travel anywhere in the world you will meet an Iranian person somewhere in some street that will recognise you and run to you and talk about how you won or lost or how you performed in a particular match. That’s the kind of passion that fans of Persepolis have.

Football Channel, Friday 16th Nov 2018

“Obviously it means a lot to Japanese football, and obviously it means a lot to Kashima fans, but multiply that maybe by 10, or even more, and that’s what it means to Iranian fans because football has a different place in the hearts of Iranian people, and Persepolis has a very special place for Iranian fans. Persepolis fans are born and die as Persepolis fans, that’s how they are.”

That was driven home when I arrived at the stadium on match-day and, sure enough, there they were as promised. My walk down the imposing tunnel that leads to the pitch was sound-tracked by tens of thousands of horns being blown incessantly as the fans ramped up their efforts, and after emerging at the end I was greeted by a mass of red, the stadium almost full four hours before kick off. The noise was indescribable and I started to wonder how the Kashima players, used to the more docile environs of the J.League, would manage to keep their composure amidst such hostility.

“We have a small chance, but I hope they can do it,” the doctor I had seen that morning, who had seemed more interested in the fact I was in Tehran to watch his beloved Persepolis than my ailment, had said. “It will make people happy, and right now in Iran people need something to make them happy.”

Kashima, of course, were there to prevent that from happening, but as kick off approached I had serious doubts that the team would be able to withstand the force that was building in the stadium. Go Oiwa’s side had a 2-0 lead from the first leg and knew an away goal here would require Persepolis to score four, but if the hosts managed to strike first in this atmosphere it was hard to see how Kashima would be able to hold them off.

Despite there being a couple of nervy moments early on, however, as Persepolis looked to attack directly and get the strikers Godwin Mensha and Ali Alipour running in behind, with Kwoun Sun-tae – in the process of becoming the first player to win the ACL three times – an unshakeable last line of defence in those moments the team settled, and from the second half on never really looked like losing their grip of the tie and their maiden continental trophy.

The fact they were ultimately able to do that is a credit to the coach and his players, and while the match was ultimately far from a gripping spectacle for the neutral to behold, it was exactly what Kashima needed.

The Iranian fans also impressed after the game, staying behind in their droves to applaud their fallen heroes off as well as allowing the Kashima players to revel in their triumph with the couple of hundred supporters who had made the long journey from Japan for this historic moment.

It had been far from easy – for me or the players – but the memories of that night in the Azadi Stadium will never fade.

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