Persepolis will face Qatari club Lekhwiya on Tuesday night in the Tehranian’s first AFC Champions League match in three years. Their absence in the continent’s biggest tournament was an excuse for rival fans to mock them, so when Persepolis secured an ACL spot in the last week of the previous season their fans were in seventh heaven. Now, they may learn to be careful about what they wish for.
Persepolis began their current season after an eventful summer. The club’s financial woes led to the departure of key players such as Seyed Jalal Hosseini and Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, but the biggest problem was in the board of directors. There, new president Mohammad Reza Rahimi, who had been appointed by the country’s Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, had a bold disagreement with businessman Hamidreza Siasi, who had played a pivotal role in the club decisions.
Siasi and Rahimi’s disagreement centered around manager Ali Daei: Although Rahimi fully supported Daei, Siasi didn’t believe the former Team Melli captain was the best option for the Reds’ bench. Meanwhile, Persepolis began the season poorly with three defeats and two draws in seven weeks. Their performance was far from the ideal and angry supporters wanted Daei out.
While it seemed that Daei’s firing would be guaranteed with just another draw, what happened next was even more shocking. Before firing the coach, Siasi brought successor-to-be Hamid Derakhshan to the training center in a virtual coup.
Derakhshan, a former Persepolis captain, served a short stint as manager two decades ago and had always been searching for an opportunity to return to his old club. But even with just a third of his matches as coach ending in wins, his dream came true with Siasi’s blessing.
With Derakhshan on the bench, Persepolis was back on track. Four wins in eight matches strengthened the new manager’s position; especially an unexpected 2-1 victory against arch-rivals Esteghlal. But when things appeared to be looking up for the second half of the season, everything changed thanks to the politically-motivated detainment of Siasi.
As part of efforts to schedule a friendly match against Real Madrid in Tehran, Siasi made contact with Amir Hossein Jahanshahi, an exiled politician who had moved to unify Iran’s various opposition groups and found his own TV network based in London. This lead to the chairman’s sudden arrest, plunging the club into crisis.
Since Siasi’s detainment, the club’s financial problems have intensified and Derakhshan is without his ‘guardian angel.’ Four successive losses and controversial comments against popular figures such as Carlos Queiroz and Afshin Ghotbi have weakened the 56-year-old’s position.
It is under these conditions that Persepolis will meet Lekhwiya on Tuesday, and fans are becoming increasingly concerned for their club’s ACL campaign. With the Reds at arguably their lowest point in the last three decades, some are left wondering whether it would have been better to skip the continental tournament.
The result of Tuesday’s match could be very influential in determining Derakhshan’s fate; many believe that he will be sacked regardless of the result. But a miracle, such as the one which gave him his current role in the first place, could change everything.