The day had arrived. Saturday, 10th November 2001. The day we'd all been waiting for. The day we had talked about, dreamt about. The first leg of the World Cup 2002 Qualifiers, play-off between the national football teams of Ireland and Iran. Our plan was simple; get up early in the morning, go to the airport, leave London for Dublin, collect our game tickets in return for vouchers we had been given by the Iranian embassy, go to the Stadium, beat Ireland, party the night away, and fly back to London!
There were 8 of us, including me. We had all tried to get on the same London-Dublin flight in order to experience everything together. But it wasn't meant to be. Five of us were able to get on to the same flight, while the other three had to board an earlier flight.
When our group — the bigger of the two — made it to Dublin after a 50 minute plane journey packed with Iranians, we got our rental car and set off to find the Iranian Embassy, where we were due to collect our tickets before 12pm. We were all nervous, and were going to remain so until we physically had the tickets in our hands, especially given the fact that we were running late. But it was okay. We phoned the embassy and told them we were going to be late, and they had said that as long as we got there soon, we were fine.
Eventually, we got to the embassy at around 1pm, a whole hour late. Surely our tickets were gone by now! But no. In exchange for our vouchers, the kind gentlemen at the embassy produced our game tickets. Finally! We could put our minds to rest and think about making it to the game on time. We asked the embassy staff if they had any Iranian flags that we could wave around at the game; but that was when our luck ran out. They had given away the last of the flags just minutes before we turned up! Ah well, we thought. Can't have everything!
I called the first group of our friends and asked if they had their tickets. They did. Good. This meant we were all definitely going to make it to the game. They were at the hotel, where they had booked a room. A strategy our bigger group decided not to go for.
Now we had a few hours to kill before the game. We decided to go back to the Jury Hotel, where Team-e Melli were supposedly staying. We entered the hotel through the back door, only to find empty, quiet hallways. Approached by hotel staff, we asked where the Iranian players were. They said that they were at another hotel. So we went back to the car, and set off for the hotel, which the hotel staff kindly gave us directions to; bearing flags of our beloved Iran on the way. We were all buzzing with excitement.
When we arrived at the hotel, we could immediately feel the presence of our Team-e Melli. They were there. In that building! The very fact that so many of our fellow Iranian supporters were gathered inside and outside the lobby gave it away. So we went in, and mixed with the crowd of over 100, all eager to catch a glimpse of the players, along with maybe a photo and an autograph!
We quickly found out that the players were in the hotel restaurant having lunch. The security personnel told us the players would be out until another 15-20 minutes. So we waited. And waited. 25 minutes. 30 minutes. It was starting to become obvious that the players have found another way out of the restaurant to avoid the crowd. During the time we waited, an acquaintance of mine informed me what floor the players were staying. He said he had been up there, and actually bumped into one or two of them.
Having waited for so long without any sight of the players, I suggested to my friends that to get pictures with the players, maybe we should go up to their floor and see if they are there. Word was going round that when it comes to taking pictures with fans, they were very warm and friendly! So we got the lift up to their floor. We stepped out onto the hallway. The silence was eerie, and the corridor seemed to stretch for miles at both ends.
We heard a loud burst of laughter. We all turned to the direction of the sound only to see Ali Karimi – one of our heroes, being chased by a fellow player of the Iranian national team! He ran down the corridor, and into his room. Behind him, was half of Team-e Melli! They were all walking out of a side lift, which seemed to be a rear-access to the floor.
We could not believe how great our timing was! It seemed too good to be true. Without wasting any time, we started taking pictures with them. So one by one, we stood next to the players and took pictures with them. They were very kind.
But afterwards, one by one, the players began to disappear into their rooms. We heard someone say that they were going to take a nap, which no doubt they would need before such a big game! But our mission was not yet accomplished!
Ali Karimi and Rahman Rezaei were among the very first to disappear into their rooms, so we had no pictures with them. And I did not have a picture with Mehdi Mahdavikia, one of my personal heroes! I felt devastated! But it was too late.
We decided to go and get something to eat. The nearest fast-food joint did the job. Wearing our shirts displaying the flag, or the word IRAN, we went in and watched our Irish counterparts with similar outfits, displaying IRELAND. But there was no nasty mood in the air. The Irish had been very friendly, wishing us luck for the game!
But we knew we had to be cautious. Ireland had already knocked out Holland from the World Cup qualifiers, and beaten Portugal too. Holland, was one of the early favourites to win the World Cup. And Portugal is possibly the strongest team in Europe! So how much of a challenge would we Iranians be?
With yet another 3 hours before kick-off, my friends and I decided to head back out for the hotel to see if we could take pictures with the players that we had missed. Again, nothing. Just the deafening silence again! But moments later, Karimi appeared from an adjoining corridor. We quietly rushed towards him, and asked if he would let us take pictures with him. He agreed, as long as we made it quick!
Then Mahdavikia came out of his room. I told him I was absolutely determined to take a picture with him, and asked if he would give the honour! He did. After a few minutes Rezaei appeared. We quickly shuffled towards him and got our pictures with him too. Now we were happy. Mission accomplished!
Before we left, we had one final treat: Ali Daei rode the lift down with us! Stepping out to the lobby, he was approached by a crowd of people, asking for autographs! Then he went off to join the rest of the team who had taken the rear-access lift.
Finally we made our way to the stadium to soak in the atmosphere before kick-off. On our way to the stadium, we stopped behind a red light on a quiet side street. A tall man, in a suit and raincoat appeared from the left, and began to cross the road. It suddenly hit us. It couldn't be, could it? Yes it was! The James Bond actor himself, Pierce Brosnan! On his own! No security. No one else around!
We shouted, “Pierce! Pierce!” He turned his head, smiled, and walked on. Wow, we thought! What a day this is turning out to be! Pictures with Team-e Melli and now, seeing a Hollywood star out on a quiet street, strolling on his own! And we weren't even half-way into our trip yet!
We found a suitable spot to park the car, not too far from the stadium. We all grabbed our belongings, and headed for the stadium on foot, waving small paper flags of Iran, which we got from a man in the hotel where Team-e Melli was staying.
Further ahead, there was an Irish stall on the street, selling football goodies, including plastic horns! I decided that I needed one, since my sole intention was to not only enjoy the game, but to support and cheer for our team with heart and soul! The horn would help me to make lots of noise and maybe get a small group of crowd going!
As we left the stall, we were joined by a group of about 100 Iranian fans, all making noise, chanting for Iran, and playing drums and horns! What better than to join in? All the way to the stadium, this crowd of 100+ strong, was now getting even louder, and in a unified voice we all sang different Team-e Melli songs. The horns played “Doo-dooo-roo Doo-doo-dooo” and the rest shouted: “IRAN!” Unity must have been one of the highlights of the day!
On the way to the stadium, we finally hooked up with our other three friends, who had arrived in Dublin two hours before us. It was a carnival atmosphere with the Irish and Iranian fans mixing with inside and outside pubs and bars on the way to Lansdowne Road stadium. Weather conditions had improved, too. Earlier in the day, it had been raining, but now at sunset the sky was calm and the stage was set for the crucial football match.
We strolled another 100 metres or so, and finally we arrived at the gate for the North Bucket Stand. Almost felt like “Home, Sweet Home!” By this time the crowd had grown significantly, waiting to go in. So we were quite cautious not to lose one another amongst our group! In through the gates, and still the spirits were high! There were chants of “IRAN, IRAN” accompanied by horns, drums and trumpets! Climbing the stairs, the next challenge was to get into the arena and find our seats! But then there was good news: we could sit where we wanted.
The moment my friends got into the stadium stand they found three rows of seats for us, right by the Exit stairs. When I went to my seat, I noticed that our seat was almost dead bang in the centre of the North stand, which had been allocated for Iranian supporters. It meant we had a good view of the pitch, and everything going on around us.
Soon after, the players came on to the pitch to get warmed up. They were greeted with a roar of cheers from all directions, but mainly, the Iranian spectators. Amidst all the noise, we saw friends who had travelled separately from all around the UK. We would immediately get into discussions on how we thought Team-e Melli should play, and who would win. We all agreed, and had a good feeling that Iran had a good chance to actually win. It was vital not to concede a goal in the first 10 minutes of the game. If we could achieve that, we'd be fine!
Before long it seemed that all the Irish fans had taken their seats too. Finally, it was a full house of 35,000 fans. It was an incredible feeling to see that the only fans who were making noise were Iranians. The 30,000+ Irish fans seemed almost silent in comparison to our crowd.
After all the formalities (players being presented to the Irish Prime Minister, and the playing of national anthems) the kick-off spot was taken. And at exactly 6pm, Roy Keane kicked off for the . Ireland. And immediately, the Irish went straight in for an attack and entered our 18-yard box.
We all got to our feet and started to shout! We could not concede a goal at this stage, surely! Mirzapour came to the rescue. And from then on, everything settled down a little. We carried on cheering for our players and making lots of noise, all throughout. I remember thinking at one stage, this is the only way I can control my emotions right now.
The game continued, and soon I noticed we were 25 minutes into the game! That was the first time I realised that we had not conceded a goal in the first 10! A good sign. But it began to hit us that this game might just prove to be a little tougher than we anticipated. The Irish were constantly attacking,, though our Team-e Melli was doing a great job defending.
Then on the 44th minute, Ireland's number 7, Jason McAteer, came down the line from nowhere. Our defence god, Rahman Rezaei, had him, and challenged him well, but McAteer got away, and Rezaei got up and tackled him once again, seemingly more fiercely this time. The referee blew his whistle, and pointed at the penalty spot with both hands; and we all knew it was over.
We had conceded a penalty. I was in absolute shock! From where I was standing, no way was Rezaei's effort a cause for a penalty. But before we knew it, we were down 1-0 and the players headed for the tunnel for the half-time interval.
Some of us blamed the referee; others blamed Rezaei. I was blaming McAteer for diving to get the unjust penalty. But then we were getting calls on our cell phones from friends and family, watching the match on TV back in London and they told us that having seen the replay, they were satisfied that Rezaei's committed a penalty! I was still not convinced!
Fifteen minutes later, and the players headed back out to a yet again cheery crowd. For some reason I got this feeling that our players had become somewhat demoralised, having conceded an unfair penalty a minute before half-time. They had played so well up to that point.
Our team kicked off the second half, and seemed to be a little more in control, although the Irish were still pushing hard. Six minutes later Ireland scored again. Robbie Keane this time. This time it was at the far end of the pitch from us, but it seemed to be a decent volley by Keane.
Once again Iranian supporters went dead silent, and there was a roar of cheers from all the other stands, which were being occupied by the Irish fans. This goal was another shock but less so than the penalty. Maybe because it seemed inevitable since we had conceded a demoralising goal just a minute before half-time.
For several minutes after the second goal, I noticed that our crowd was still dead silent! No more horns. No more “IRAN, IRAN”. No more banging drums. I could not accept that. The way I saw it, we were there to cheer for our players to give them the support and encouragement that they need! So my friends and I all started a chorus of “IRAN” followed by horns. Soon after, others joined in, and once again our crowd began to lift and start to sing again in a unified voice.
The cheers kept dying down every time the Irish side attacked, but someone, somewhere in the crowd would always begin the chants again, and everyone else would join in. Most of the cheering was for the three opportunities Ali Karimi had on goal.
The crowd were then lifted onto their feet again by Karim Bagheri's effort for a goal, but once again we all sat down in disappointment. Iran's performance looked much more pleasing in the second half though, and we all felt that the game was ending much better than it started, and at least our side was giving the Irish something to worry about.
Minutes later, the referee blew his final whistle of the game, and it was all over. Ireland 2, Iran 0. Maybe the worst possible scenario. Had we scored just one away goal, or just conceded 1 goal instead of two, we would have a much greater chance of making it to the 2002 World Cup finals. But now, Iran would have to score three in the return leg of the match a week later in Tehran. And even worse was the prospect of having to score 4 goals, if Ireland scored one in Tehran! Almost an impossible task even to contemplate!
These were the issues my friends and I were all discussing on our way back to the car from the stadium. We were passed by Irish fans, wishing us better luck for the next match in Tehran. Yeah, right! We just couldn't take in the loss. None of us could. It was undeserved. Yet we had to face it; that's life in football, and all we could concentrate on were our chances in Tehran.
As my four friends and I got to the car, we decided to join our three other friends at their hotel, to have a little rest before going out to see the Dublin night-life. It was agreed that those three would stay at the hotel, as their flight back to London was later than the rest of us.
After some refreshments, and a little rest in the hotel lobby, we headed out for the city centre, where there were still scores of football fans from both nations. And football was still very much on everyone's minds. Seeing us walking in the streets with our IRAN tops, people approached us and still wished us better luck for the next game. We were, however, pleased to see that most Irish fans accepted that a 2-0 win by Ireland was a little harsh on Iran, and that the game was quite close.
At around 4am, now Sunday, my four friends and I headed back for the airport. We were very tired by now, having had no sleep for almost 24 hours. As we were getting ready to board our plane, we suddenly realised we were short of one boarding pass! The airport staff informed us that without it, we would miss the flight and we would have to go back to the check-in desk.
As we rushed back to the desks, I suddenly noticed that Ali Daei, along with Mirsolav Blazevic, and a few other Team-e Melli members were standing by the desk! But I could not pay attention to that; there was only 10 minutes left to our flight, and we needed to get a new boarding pass.
I soon realised that the full Team-e Melli was appearing around the check-in desk. I was longing to ask one of them for one last photo or maybe an autograph. But it was too late, and we only had five minutes before our flight. As the airport staff provided us with a new boarding pass, my two friends and I began to run towards the designated gate of our flight.
As we were running, I noticed that the Iranian players were heading for the same direction as us! Although we were desperately trying to reach our flight gate, I could not help but think that it would be a perfect ending to a great trip, had Team-e Melli been scheduled to fly back on the same flight as us! But it seemed too good to be true, and they would probably have their own designated area on the plane anyway.
When we finally reached the plane, it was obvious that the Iranian players were indeed flying back on to London with us. I noticed Mehdi Mahdavikia walking right by my side. I greeted him, followed by “Khasteh nabashi.”
As I went up the stairs and into the plane with my friends, it seemed that all passengers had already taken their seats, with the exception of a few late-arriving Team-e Melli members. As I approached my seat, I felt honoured to see Ebrahim Mirzapour sitting on the seat next to mine! I greeted him, and told him what a pleasure it was for me to be sitting next to one of world's best goalkeepers. As kind as he was, he said “The pleasure is all mine!”
The players generally looked very tired, and Mirzapour told me they had had no sleep over the previous night, as usually was the case after a match. I told him that they had all played really well, and that I had every faith they would beat Ireland comfortably in the next match, days away.
Although they were very tired, one player who was boosting the mood of all passengers was Mehrdad Minavand. He was sitting near the back of the plane with other non-Team-e Melli passengers, and he encouraged everyone into chanting “IRAN, IRAN”. Sitting next to me, Mirzapour slept most of the 50-minute journey back into London, where he said the squad was due to take a connecting flight to Baku, and then to Tehran.
After we landed, I took the opportunity to take a few pictures with a few of the players including Mirzapour. I also asked several of them for autographs, to which they kindly obliged. As we left the plane, the players went into the passenger-lounge where they took seats. Fellow passengers once again used that opportunity to take pictures, and wish them well in the upcoming match in Tehran.