Is Iran an emerging football nation?

March 08, 2018 15:30
Iran's national footballer Sardar Azmoun celebrates his goal with fans at the Asian Cup in 2015. Photo: Reuters

On the day I recently gave a presentation on emerging markets to students attending the Sport Business Institute in Barcelona, Iranian club Esteghlal beat its league rival Persepolis 1-0 in the Tehran derby.

For many people outside Iran, the game probably passed by without them noticing. Yet this is a match that draws at least 80,000 fans to the city’s Azadi Stadium, but often more and sometimes beyond 100,000. Compare these figures to, say, average attendances at Chelsea and Juventus – which average crowds of 41,500 and 39,500 respectively – and one can see that the Tehran derby is one of world football’s hidden gems.

Following remarks made by students during my lecture, it led me to question whether Iran is an established football market or an emerging one? Among characterizations of emerging markets, the transition from dictatorship, social stability and freedom, and gradual integration with the global marketplace are all often mentioned.

As such, it is questionable whether Iran actually meets the criteria to be classified as an emerging football nation. Although democratic elections take place there, ultimate power is vested in the hands of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution. Furthermore, the way in which Supreme Leaders have dealt with discontent in recent times suggests social stability and freedom in Iran remain moot concepts.

Indeed, at the Tehran derby, several women were arrested for attending the game – females remain banned from watching football matches. Barack Obama, when he was the US president, wanted to bring Iran back into the mainstream geopolitical fold, but Donald Trump’s more bellicose view on Tehran suggests that its global reintegration is now likely to slow.

Which all suggests that Iran doesn’t seem to fit into the existing classifications of what constitutes an emerging nation. Perhaps it also suggests that an economically strong nation (which, thanks to its oil revenues, Iran is) may not necessarily be an established football nation (and vice versa). After all, Brazil has long been football aristocracy but only in recent decades has the country been classified as an economically emerging nation (albeit currently one that seems to be regressing).

And what about the likes of Vietnam, a country with a current 6 percent plus economic growth rate and a recent finalist in the Asian Football Confederation’s under-23 tournament? Or India, where growth is running at almost 10 percent, and the country’s football authorities are instigating changes to their domestic football? In both cases, the world in general probably does not see them as emerging football nations. Instead, they see them as backwaters for the sport.

Then one has to consider the United States: the world’s biggest sports economy, with its culture of passionate sports fans, but little high-level success in football and somewhat frowned upon by the European orthodoxy that still labels the country as a retirement home for aging professionals.

All of this therefore begs an important question, one that my Barcelona class was left pondering: What is an emerging football nation? There was some consensus that several factors in combination identify and define such nations. The first of these was the nature of a country’s football culture and the level of engagement with the sport among its domestic population.

For many westerners, it is widely held that across the Middle East there is little interest in football. Attendances at matches are thought to be small, and teams (both club and national) may perform poorly. Countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates fit this profile, sometimes leading to widespread questioning of the former’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup.

Yet both countries have increasingly become a major source of funds for football across the world. In addition, although their domestic clubs remain unloved children, support for overseas clubs, like Real Madrid and Manchester United, remains intense.

In such countries, football culture is therefore often played out in different ways to those otherwise evident in the bars of England or the cafes of Spain. Fan engagement often takes place via social media or, as the cases of Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City, via the ownership of overseas assets by their country’s sovereign wealth funds. It is perhaps no surprise then, that one of football’s most aggressive television channels, beIN, is Qatari-owned.

The popularity of football on television, and for that matter social media, raises further issues about nations and their status as "emerging". One might conclude that people in such nations are likely to have only limited engagement with football. However, in a country such as China, which is routinely labeled as "emerging", television viewership of football matches is sizeable and social media followings for clubs are significant.

Figures suggest that hundreds of millions of Chinese football fans watch European football games, indeed Spain’s La Liga has even rescheduled its games so that live broadcasts can hit China’s living rooms at peak time on a Saturday evening. At the same time, Shanghai’s Mailman consultancy frequently notes how popular clubs like Bayern Munich are on Chinese social media.

By European standards, China therefore seems to be anything but an emerging market. However, once again, as in the Gulf region, China seems to be rather more enamored with other countries’ football rather than its own. In addition, the "half a billion people will be watching on TV" stories that inevitably accompany Manchester, Milan or Madrid derby games are grossly inaccurate and reflect the absence of a credible, well-governed industrial infrastructure underpinning football.

Under-developed industrial infrastructure could thus be a further measure that defines an emerging football nation. This may embrace anything from an old, small or non-existent collection of stadiums through to poorly developed revenue streams from sources such as sponsorship and merchandising.

One reason for this in countries like China, Iran, Qatar and others could be that their governments often adopt a strongly interventionist stance. Ample evidence of the way in which this can affect the development of a nation’s football is easily observed in China where, over the last 12 months, the government has introduced new taxes and quotas on players, and curbed investments made by club owners. This stands in stark contrast to, for example, the way in which British governments engage with the Premier League.

Why should all of this matter? Seen through western eyes, the importance of emerging markets is largely financial as clubs try to spot "the next big thing in football". Yet establishing themselves as leading football nations is also economically, as well as politically and socially, important for those deemed to be "emergent".

In simple terms, however, the growing strength of these countries is vital in playing terms, not least in ensuring that football truly remains the global game.

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The Tehran derby, featuring Iranian club Esteghlal against its league rival Persepolis, draws at least 80,000 fans to the city’s Azadi Stadium. Photo: AFC
Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani (left) and FIFA president Sepp Blatter at the announcement of Qatar's hosting of FIFA World Cup 2022. Photo: Reuters
Chinese fans cheer Real Madrid in a friendly match in Guangzhou. The European champion is popular in China. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.