From the oil fields of Masjed Soleyman where football was introduced to Iranians, to the humble streets of Ahvaz where for decades football has been the joy of young children. The historic south-eastern Iranian province of Khuzestan is the football academy of Iran. Generation after another, Khuzestan has produced footballing heroes for this football crazy nation. Big characters like legendary goalkeeper Ahmad Abedzadeh, to silky players such as the Mazloumi brothers. But in 2016, Khuzestan produced a fairytale story which captured the hearts of millions across Iran. It is one club’s mission impossible to conquer the footballing scene of the country.
Almost one year ago to this day, on 31st of May 2015, this team were on the verge of relegation. A 3-0 victory on aggregate against Mes Kerman in a relegation play-off, ensured their survival for at least another season. As manager Abdollah Veisi was left to ponder over the terrible season his team had endured, the club’s board were considering his future. After long meetings, the club decided to put their trust in Veisi’s hands once more.
The 45 year old had a mediocre career as a footballer in Iran, featuring for the likes of Sepahan and Foolad as a defender. When his playing days were over and he took the plunge into the world of coaching and management, his insistence to play football the right way and an eye for finding great talents in lower leagues quickly upped his reputation and made him one of the modern managers in Iranian football. His dress sense and visual similarities to the Spanish mastermind, Pep Guardiola, also caused Iranian media and footballing community to refer to him as “Iran’s pep”.
Unlike their manager who has a longstanding reputation in the game in Iran, Esteghlal Melli-Sanati Khuzestan were only established in 2011. The club bought the rights and license of another Ahvazi team, Esteghlal Jonoub, who competed in Azadegan league, the second tier of Iranian football. In the 2012/13 season, Esteghlal Khuzestan were promoted to Persian Gulf Pro League
After the disappointing showings in the 2014/15 season, Veisi knew major changes were needed. An overhaul in the squad during the summer saw 20 players leave the club, including star players such as Meysam Majidi (who joined Tehran giants, Esteghlal) and Mehdi Momeni (signing for Champions League quarter-finalists Naft Tehran). Veisi had gone back to what he knew best, he gathered a squad mostly made out of young players from Azadegan league, with a wage budget of just over a £1 Million, joint lowest in the entire league. It wasn’t long before the rest of the league took notice of Veisi’s masterstrokes, stellar performances from attacking midfielder Hassan Beyt Saeed and Brazilian goalkeeper Fernando really caught the attention of the footballing community in Iran. But this success wasn’t based on individual players, the coaching staff were able to build a team, a machine, in which everyone had a role to play, a system of play in which injuries to specific players or rotations in the starting lineup wouldn’t affect their results. Esteghlal Khuzestan managed to collect an impressive 17 clean sheets in 30 games, at first glance one would think that can only come from a rigid and consistent back 4, but many times during the season Veisi chopped and changed his back 4. Full backs Aghil Kaebi, Jalal Abdi, Danial Mahini and Peyman Shirzadi were all rotated on a regular basis during the season, which is testament to the strength in depth built by Veisi. But one man always stood out as the leader and example to follow in the team, and that man was Mohammad Tayyebi, a commanding centre back who earned the nickname of “barbed wire” from his own manager.
Esteghlal Khuzestan’s story and success naturally brought around comparisons with Leicester City and their incredible achievement of winning the Barclays Premier League. But unlike the English Premier League where some of the traditional powerhouses had a below-par season, the giants of Persian Gulf Pro League were on top form as they gunned for the league title. Both of the illustrious Tehran clubs, Esteghlal and Persepolis, were in the hunt until the final day of the season as Esteghlal Khuzestan led the table on goal difference heading into the final matchday.
“You’re leading the table after 29 weeks, you have 45 minutes to get over the line. These people have come to the stadium in this scorching heat just to watch you, don’t let them go home disappointed. Go out there and play as if this is your last match. Run as if this is the last time you’ll step onto the pitch.”
Those were Veisi’s final words to his players during the half time break in their final game against Zob Ahan at home. The score was 0-0, they needed a win to ensure they’ll lift the title, and those words inspired his players as they scored 2 goals and sent the stadium wild. The celebrations had begun but when the national television was broadcasting Veisi running on the touchline with tears pouring down his face, only then one felt the magnitude of this story. He always maintained that his players were like his younger brothers and it was hard to deny that this team had a family feeling to it, they understood what this meant to the locals and people of Khuzestan.
For some of these players, their fantastic week wasn’t over especially when they saw their names in the latest national team squad announced by Carlos Queiroz. Danial Mahini and Mohammad Tayyebi will take part in Iran’s training camp and friendly game against Macedonia in June.
Once Esteghlal Khuzestan were confirmed as the champions of Iran, speculations started about the future of Veisi, and there was plenty of them. Sepahan who had a terrible season, were keen to acquire his services. But Veisi maintained his loyalty to Esteghlal Khuzestan and suggested that he will remain in Ahvaz if the club can meet his conditions. Over 10-12 days after the final game of the season, meetings took place between him and club hierarchy and it was confirmed that he will turn his back to continental football next season and his home city, to take charge of Sepahan. It started what will undoubtedly be a long summer for Esteghlal Khuzestan, with the manager and mastermind of their success leaving, only time will tell what will happen to the rest of the squad.
But as the club is left to make some big decisions in coming weeks ahead of next season, the incredible story of Esteghlal Khuzestan will remain in memories for years to come. The images of locals celebrating deep into the night on the streets of Ahvaz, will tell the story of a thousand words. Khuzestan has another chapter to its longstanding football tradition and history.