When you think of Asian club football, you could be forgiven if you presumed that it is contested by a huge majority of Asian-born players. When Saudi Arabia announced their squad for the 2018 World Cup, every single player was domestic-based, with the majority being players of Al Ahli or Al Hilal.
The precedent is fairly similar across the continent, so when a European pitches up in the kit of his team, eyebrows are raised. That happened in Tehran, when Éamon Zayed became the most unlikely continental hero in a match between Tehran clubs Esteghal and Persepolis in 2012…
The Azadi Stadium, Tehran, February 2012: His club, Pesepolis, have ten men and are 2-0 down in the biggest derby in Iran, perhaps the biggest rivalry in Asia. Éamon Zayed, who spoke no more of the native language than an hour of practice would allow him to, stepped on to the field with ten minutes to go as a mere substitution for the sake of it. Prior to this, his manager had barely spoke to him, amid the outrage of his signature.
He was a nobody – after failed stints at clubs such as Bray Wanderers and Crewe Alexandra, Éamon Zayed was pitching up in the Azadi Stadium, which has a capacity of over 100,000, in a politically charged, hostile environment. But within ten minutes, the unknown quantity became hero, he became an icon of Iranian football, for the red side of Persepolis at least.
With his first touch, literally, Zayed pulled one back for the Reds. A long searching ball came over the top in between the central defender and full back, the sort we came accustomed to in that Leicester season – Drinkwater to Vardy – Zayed’s immediate thoughts may have been that of ‘hit and hope’. It was an audacious hit, but it instilled Persepolis with hope, as Zayed caressed the ball past the on-rushing goalkeeper, with a first-timed finish the most accomplished of frontman would be pleased with. Celebrations were muted, almost non-existent, but the Irishman had made an instant impact in Iran, and that counted for something at least.
Minutes later, he had another. He scored his first with a unique in-and-out run and tidy finish, and this one showed even better instincts in terms of forward runs. Sometimes, the best run to make is to not run at all, and stop still. That’s what Zayed did, as he looped in the air before nodding Persepolis level with minutes on the clock. The dead and buried Persepolis were somehow on level terms through a brace from an Irish striker making his debut for a team he was signed behind the managers back, in a country he speaks none of the language, in a 100,000-seater Azadi Stadium. The headlines were already wrote, and the name Éamon Zayed was etched into Asian football history forever.
Zayed was living in a dream, but in most good dreams, you wake up before the fairytale ending – it’s too unrealistic, and you sit up in your bed fantasising over better times. For Zayed, he continued in the dream, and it was to get better. With seconds to go on the clock, Mr Zayed popped up in the box again, to score the winner.
The red of Persepolis have the ball in the corner, with a throw-in. We’ve all seen the video of *that Iran throw* from the World Cup by now – if not, welcome back to planet Earth. It wasn’t quite like that, no roly-poly, no Twitter trends, just a standard throw, sadly. It looked for a few seconds as though Persepolis were content with keeping the ball in the corner, until an audacious cross is fired low and hard into Zayed.
Sadly, Zayed has a defender either side of him, the only option will be to return the ball to its original destination. But this is football. Zayed drops his shoulder one way, and with indescribable balance, spins the second defender in what can only be described as Dennis Berkampesque style – if that is not a word, it is now. Zayed spins away from his markers and slots the ball home. GOAL. WINNER. PERSEPOLIS.
From ruins to a rupture of noise, that turns the Azadi Stadium into a cauldron of euphoric joy and unthinkable relief, Persepolis have won the Tehran derby.
Éamon Zayed had cemented his name in the history of Iranian football forever. Persepolis had won the derby via a player they had never heard of, a player who, twelve months prior, was plying his trade at Bray Wanderers.
There are strange stories in football and then there is… this. To go from playing in front of a crowd of around 100 people, mainly relatives, watching a reserve match, to scoring a hat-trick in one of the biggest rivalries in world football. Wow.
For context, the Tehran derby is much more than three points. It is about politics, power, and pride of a city. Businesses close down for the day of the game, as if it were a national holiday. It cuts through religion and even families. It is the reason relationships are both forged and broken.
I wrote on the complexity of this politically charged rivalry for the Football Chronicle website:
Abì-t e ya ghermèze-t e? Are you blue or red? The Tehran duel is known locally as the Surkhabi derby and is commonly known as one of, if not the biggest in Asia, between the blue of Estaghal and the red of Persepolis. Most rivalries have a long history, and for most, you can find some black and white footage that explain the origins of the derby, be it religion, politics or just general dislike. The Tehran derby is different in this respect, too.
Abì-t e ya ghermèze-t e, Éamon? Mr. Zayed is most certainly red. The ‘Irishman in Iran’ came over and won the hearts, and earned Persepolis fans the bragging right. Ten minutes of fame is all it took. Ten minutes on the pitch to go from hero to zero and go from a strange journeyman-like figure in football to a national icon. Ten minutes to etch his name in history and win the hearts of the red side of Persepolis, in a match which is the blood of many fans lives.
By Lewis Steele