Barefoot kids juggle their footballs in dusty alleys. Portraits of Neymar and Ronaldo hang from storefronts and their national flag flies on car windows. Inside the local stadium, fans chant “Abadan Berezilete!” – “Abadan is just like Brazil!”
Sanat Naft is a football club in Abadan, Iran. Its uniform was blue and white until the mid-1970s, when a visiting Brazilian team’s coach remarked on Abadan’s similarity to his homeland, noting the dusty fields, poor children playing football in poor neighborhoods, balls made from whatever rolled. Led by Pelé, Brazil’s national team had won its third World Cup in 1970, so Sanat’s managers took the comparison as inspiration: not only would their footballers analyze and learn Brazilian techniques, they would wear Brazilian uniforms. Easily convinced, local fans began flaunting the Brazilian flag and coat of arms.
But no amount of blue, yellow and green could replicate Brazil’s fertile conditions for football. Throughout the 1970s, 30 new football stadiums were built across Brazil, and in 1979, President João Figueiredo celebrated his inauguration with a football match. That same year, Iran’s Islamic Revolution began dismantling Western institutions in Iranian society and sport. This included nationalizing all football clubs, barring women from stands, and dissolving the national league. Football’s commercialism and “star” salaries, according to Ayatollah Khomeini, were not part of Iranian sportsmanship.
Football surged back into Iranian popular culture nearly as soon as Khomeini died, and is now the most-played sport in the country. Sanat, however, has not recovered. “Football fields here have such low quality that they have an adverse effect on the way teams play,” says Ali Firoozi, 62, a former coach for Sanat Naft. “So our players could be like Brazilians, but aren’t.” In 2007, Sanat Naft bought its own Brazilian, midfielder Leonardo Pimenta. Brazilians are the most sought-after commodities on the football transfer market, but Pimenta’s welcome in Abadan would have been impossible anywhere else; barely known in his home country, he was received at the airport by a throng of fans. Later, while visiting a Sanat fan’s house, Pimenta found his picture on a wall between Pelé and the Ayatollah.
At the end of the season, though, Sanat was relegated to the second division and Pimenta left to play in the United Arab Emirates. Two more Brazilians, two Armenians and one Malian wore the club’s colors in the following years, but Sanat has not made it back to the first division. It particularly struggles to win when playing at home in Abadan, says Sanat supervisor Mehdi Ghaffari. “The players are under a lot of pressure here, because fans’ expectations are too high.” Sanat’s ultras, who have their own manager for coordinating cheers and chants, are among the most passionate fans in all Iran. When they sing “Abadan Berezilete!” they believe it.