Iran’s Premier League ticketing system has never been efficient, but the problems have intensified this season. (Supplied)

By Payam Younesipour

February 6, 2020

Tickets went on sale for the February 6 Premier League Tehran football derby on Monday, February 3, and yet by Wednesday, less than 20,000 people were able to buy tickets, prompting rumors that Iran’s Security Council had ordered the Iranian Football Federation to reduce ticket sales over fears that protests might erupt in the grounds.

The game between Esteghlal and Persepolis will take place at Azadi Stadium at 4:30pm on Thursday, and half the seats are expected to remain empty.

Iran’s Premier League ticketing system has never been efficient, but the problems have intensified this season, and particularly over the last few months — since widespread protests spread across the country in mid-November and the events unfolding since.

Yet security forces are suspected to have tried to control the numbers even before then. Mehr News Agency reported on September 16, 2019 that nearly 3,000 Persepolis fans who had gone to Azadi Stadium without buying a ticket online beforehand were not allowed to enter the stadium to watch the game.

The same agency quoted the commander of Azadi Special Security Forces as saying: “For the first and last time, we announce to spectators who come without tickets that we will not allow them to enter the stadium.”

This was an attempt to get fans who wanted to enter the stadiums, especially Azadi Stadium, to register their information in order to attend the match.

Mehdi Taj, the president of the Iranian Football Federation at that time, claimed that more than 500 cameras had been installed in Azadi Stadium to identify spectators using face-recognition software. But there were no media reports of these cameras, and they failed to capture violent clashes between fans at Azadi — once during a Persepolis vs. Sepahan match and the second time when Persepolis played Tractor Sazi. Both times, dozens were injured, and Iran’s security forces failed to contain the chaos.

So in theory, the Premier League ticketing system is supposed to reduce clashes, or at least record them for later responses from authorities. Spectators must buy tickets beforehand, but thousands of fans have complained they are blocked from doing so. For example, in the Persepolis-Tractor Sazi game, more than 15,000 Persepolis fans claimed that they could not buy a ticket.

Strange Changes to the Normal System

The derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis was originally scheduled to take place on Friday, February 7, but the Tehran Provincial Security Council voted to hold key matches on weekdays. In addition, the time of the game, which was supposed to start at 6:45 in the evening, was changed to 16:00 just 48 hours before the game.

The Esteghlal Club, as the “home” side, should have been allocated 90 percent of the seats, with 10 percent of seats allocated to Persepolis fans. And yet, security forces announced a week ago that the 90-10 arrangement would not be implemented and the seats would be sold on a 50/50 basis.

The Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) reported that, by the afternoon of Saturday, February 1, 47,500 tickets had been sold for the derby, from which 24,500 tickets were bought by Persepolis fans, exceeding the number of tickets bought by  Esteghlal fans — but also meaning that half of the seats remained empty. ISNA quoted Ali Asghar Entezarkheir, the official in charge of the ticketing system. He also told Fars News Agency that he had been “ordered” to sell only 57,000 tickets for the derby, about half the capacity of the stadium.

Most of the Persepolis and Esteghlal seats were left empty, but not the ones facing the stands and the television cameras for Iran state TV, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB).

The game attracted nearly 54,000 tickets with four days left to go until the derby, so if the disruption continued,  this time, considering the disruption in the ticketing system, it would not even sell 30,000 tickets.

On Wednesday, an Iranian football online channel with nearly 380,000 followers, ran a survey among fans who had hoped to buy a ticket. More than 43,000 people took part in the survey, and 77 percent had responded that they “could not buy a ticket.” Given this, the theory that the Security Council was clamping down on spectator numbers seems viable. 

Sporting Events Canceled After Plane Crash

Suspending sports competitions around the country and postponing the league matches and also pressurizing the players and coaches not to engage in social discussions, are a few examples which has happened following

Since the November protests, the missile strikes on US forces in Iraq, and the shooting down of the Ukrainian passenger plane by the Revolutionary Guards, Iranian authorities have tried to control Iranian people by cutting down on large crowds anywhere, including sporting events. They have postponed a range of sporting events, and pressured players and coaches not to get involved in online discussions about recent events.

But officials denied that this tactic was behind the low ticket sales. “The problem may be due to disruptions to the Internet,” said Ali Asghar Entezarkheir, a project manager for Azadi Stadium and its ticketing. “I checked it using different cell phones and other systems and found out that the problem persists.”

He claimed that the stadium had put in place for the first time a “waiting queue” system for the Tehran derby. This means if 500 people are logged into the system at the same time, anyone going on to the site will have to wait until the others finish their purchase. After 20 minutes, the system throws the buyer off and they are forced to start all over again.

What is more disastrous is that the ticketing system is arbitrary:  sometimes it takes the person’s money and does not provide a ticket confirmation. That is, after logging into the bank’s payment gateway and depositing the money, it logs the person out of the system without issuing a ticket.

So the project manager’s claims of “computer problems” (whether to do with the internet or not) are ludicrous — the famous book Ignorance by leading Czech novelist Milan Kundera comes to mind as a comparison.

Why, for the first time in the run-up to a Tehran derby — the world’s 29th largest derby according to World Soccer Magazine, the second-largest derby in the Middle East (after the Cairo derby), and the biggest derby in Asia, would authorities suddenly decide to change the system for buying tickets if it were not for suspicious reasons

Entezarkheir told Tasnim News Agency: “Previously there was a problem with the payments, which did not refund the money to unsuccessful ticket buyers. We also had two canceled games for which some had bought tickets but have not yet been refunded. I have to say that there is an administrative problem and because the account is not a personal account and must go through the treasury, it has to go through an administrative process.”

The empty seats will not be sold 24 hours before the derby. This is due to the desire that want the Azadi Stadium empty. What happened in the games of the Premier League of the last season and in September and October games at this stadium is not to the liking of the authorities.

So this week’s Tehran derby, which hosted 120,000 spectators even in the days of the war and the revolution, will now take place in front of an almost-empty stadium. All because the authorities have not been happy with how fans have treated Azadi Stadium — a public space where people can express their views and even vent their anger. Azadi Stadium has been a security concern for the Islamic Republic in the past — consider Iceland’s support for Reza Shah during a Persepolis game, whose name was shouted out at the end of the match —  and it will be again on Thursday, February 6.

Persepolis team coach Yahya Golmohammadi protested against recent events, and the fact that the team will play before very few fans, describing it as “regrettable.” He hinted that history was once again going to be made — a Tehran derby played in an empty stadium.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.