Football as a Platform for Ethnic Identity Assertion in Iran

Ehsan Kashfi, University of Alberta


On January 5, 2018, during a football match in Tabriz, East Azerbaijan, the Azeri football team Tractor SC was leading against their long-time rival from the capital city. The crowd at the stadium began chanting “Arabian Gulf,” aligning themselves with Iran’s neighboring Arab states in a longstanding dispute over the name of the gulf that borders the countries. The audience cheered in Azeri, shouting “urmu xazar bizimdi, xelij Arab lerindi,” which can be translated to “Lake Urmia and the Caspian Sea belong to us [Azeris], as the Gulf belongs to Arabs.” Such use of alternatives to Persian Gulf would not only be condemned by Iranians, as an active contribution to the abandonment of a historical name, but would also be seen as a blatant assault on Persian heritage and Iranian identity. The recent resurgence of ethnolinguistic sentiments, expressed by discontented individuals of ethnic minorities in Iranian stadiums, reflects a deep and lasting sense of dissatisfaction with how Iranian identity is articulated, in contrast to the dominant nationalistic narrative. Football stadiums represent a key venue in which ethnic minorities express these challenges.

Over the past decade, non-Persian-speaking minorities in Iran have voiced their demands for equal political rights and cultural recognition, challenging the dominant nationalist discourse of identity and its exclusive definition of “Iranianness.” Ethnic groups in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Baluchistan openly question the disregard of the country’s ethnic and linguistic diversity, and advocate for recognition of their language and ethnic heritage. As the minority issue resurfaced in public debates, the study of ethnicity, which had long been neglected in Iranian Studies, also gained scholarly attention, leading to an extensive literature on ethnicity and the politics of identity in Iran.[1] Scholars focused on the construction of the Persian-centric narrative of identity, the historical development of the Iranian nation’s imagination,[2] and the significant role played by nationalist-minded intellectuals, scholars, and statesmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[3] In particular, they problematized the disproportionate emphasis on the Persian language and heritage in the nationalist reading of Iranian history and society, and the Persian-centric definitions of Iranianness.[4] Indeed, some scholars have further criticized the Persian-speaking majority’s political, socioeconomic, and cultural hegemony, seeing it as an example of chauvinism and inherent racism in Iranian society.[5]

Different forms and expressions of ethnolinguistic sentiments nonetheless remain unexplored, with their counternarratives of identity incorporating themes, rhetoric, and symbolism employed to forge an alternative ethnic form of belonging. This study examines the use of sport as a distinctive means of and arena for expressing repressed ethnic feelings. It focuses specifically on Tractor SC, a football club founded in Tabriz and supported by Azeri ethnic minorities, as a key focal point in the construction, consolidation, and expression of Azeri identity in Iran. It aims to shed light on how a seemingly “neutral” avenue like football develops political and cultural dimensions in a politically closed environment. Tractor SC offers a unique arena for representing the idea of ethnic or even national distinctiveness for Azeris and serves as an effective vehicle for a form of cultural resistance to celebrate an alternative identity, different from and opposed to the Persian-centric narrative of Iranianness. This study explores how slogans, songs, and banners are used to sustain a distinct sense of identity for many Tractor fans, for whom the club is their most significant single ethnocultural focus.

The Intertwined Relationship between Nationalism and Sport

The link between nationalism and sport is a close one in the modern world, as both are highly emotional phenomena that often evoke intense devotion and even violence. Sport has been used in various ways to further national causes, as evidenced by the concept of national sport and the popularity of international competitions. Football, in particular, as the world’s most popular sport, has become a central medium for the overt display and reinforcement of national sentiments. This is achieved through collective practices such as waving flags, singing national anthems, and wearing team jerseys, which generate a sense of emotional belonging and solidarity among members of the nation. At the same time, this also creates a sense of difference and sometimes even hostility towards those who do not support the team. Memories of victories and defeats, as well as sporting achievements, become part of the national memory and evoke feelings of pride and attachment to the nation, providing shared points of reference for its residents to recognise themselves through time.

The rise of right-wing populist politicians in recent years has given new momentum to the relationship between sports and nationalism. Sport is once again being utilized to foster a sense of national unity and international prestige, particularly by nationalist politicians who are fearful of the impact of global culture. Success in international competitions, where a team embodies a nation and competes against other nations, is used to fuel nationalist sentiment and strengthen a sense of affiliation and loyalty. An example of this can be seen in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan uses the passion and success of a football club to deflect potential protest against his authoritarian regime.[6]

However, despite being a symbol of national unity, football can also reflect resentment towards it.[7] In the absence of democratic institutions, football can serve as a channel for deeper social and political discontent regarding the state of national identity, particularly as an outlet for minority resentment towards imposed cultural and/or linguistic dominance. Football gatherings, often with large crowds, have become sites of contestation, identity claims, and nationalist performance, where minorities can wave their flags, sing their songs, and speak in their scorned mother tongues. Football stadiums provide a relatively safe environment for expressing otherwise repressed views and discontent. Some ethnic minorities are denied representation in national sports, and thus they express their passion and support for a sports club of their region. Examples of this include Belfast Celtic and Glasgow Celtics, both representing Irish identity, or Athletic Bilbao, associated with Basque identity.[8] However, the most well-known example is FC Barcelona, which has become more than a club in twentieth-century Spain, as evidenced by their motto “mes que un club,” meaning “more than a club.” The team acts as a symbolic representation of Catalan identity and a focal point for resistance against a repressive government where followers can exhibit and promote their repressed identity. Many have followed the club more out of pride than any interest in football, as doing so allows them to express their forbidden feelings at Camp Nou, the team’s stadium, by openly shouting and speaking in Catalan.[9]

Tractor SC and Ethnic Identifications

In recent years, Iranian Azeris have become increasingly vocal in their demands to safeguard their ethnic identity, culture, and language. These ethnic sentiments and demands take different forms and varied expressions. In addition to numerous regional protests, grassroots activities, and literary revival movements, Azeri groups have vigorously employed football gatherings as a vehicle for ethnic expression. Slogans, songs, and banners, which are the most commonly used linguistic and symbolic representations in Sahand Stadium, primarily reflect four major categories: firstly, the celebration of the Azeri language and demands for education in the mother tongue; secondly, the remembrance and glorification of Azeri ancestry, mythology, and the memories of deceased Azeri heroes; thirdly, the collective connections to the ancestral land and its iconic geographical landscapes; and  lastly, the Pan-Azeri and Pan-Turkic sentiments that call for a cultural, or even political, union among all Turkic-origin peoples that often take a chauvinistic or even racist tone. All of these resources are subjective and symbolic tools that are available to represent an alternative to the dominant nationalistic narrative of Iranian identity.

The recognition of their unique ethnolinguistic identity is highly valued among Azeris, with many openly advocating for the use of the Azari language in Iran and the right to receive education in their mother tongue at all levels.[10] Tractor fans, especially Tifusis, the most cohesive and organized group of Tractor fans, with a unique style of cheering for the club, have used Sahand Stadium as a platform to express such demands, with slogans, songs, and banners focused on advocating for the recognition of Azerbaijan’s language, literature, and culture. Slogans such as “Everyone should have a school in their own language” and “School [education] should be in Azeri” are frequently heard in Sahand Stadium. A noteworthy example of this demand in action is during Tractor games when all Tifusi fans unite to chant a slogan in the fifteenth minute. This coordinated protest aims to draw attention to Article Fifteen of the Islamic Republic Constitution, which concerns the right to education in the mother tongue. The article designates Persian as the official language and script of Iran and the common language of its citizens, while also allowing for the use of regional and tribal languages in the media and for teaching literature in schools.[11] The demands of the Azeri activists and Tractor fans go further and essentially question the underlying well-accepted assumption that Iranian identity finds its expression only through the Persian language. This assumption leads to the labelling of the minority’s demands, languages, and dialects as threats to the national culture that need to be reformed or eliminated. The demands practically challenge the denial of linguistic diversity in Iran, the fixation on the Persian language, and the discrediting and devaluing of other languages spoken in Iran as century-long institutionalized policies of cultural homogenization in the country.

Tractor fans use their songs and slogans to refer to ethnic heroes and legends, which revive ethnic sentiments and promote an alternative ethnic narrative of the past. Among these heroes, the ninth-century figure Babak Khorramdin holds great symbolic significance and his name is often chanted by the fans in Sahand Stadium. Babak led a fierce local resistance movement against Arab Caliphates, becoming a symbol of ethnic resistance and defiance in Azerbaijan. His story represents a tale of heroism and a political narrative that can inspire contemporary ethnic discontents. It offers a historically failed yet politically liberating resistance, aimed at delegitimizing the status quo. The legend of Babak reflects the true Azeri spirit, inspiring feelings of pride and dignity that Azeris can relate to and identify with, as it portrays acts of sacrifice of the glorious dead that inspire the living. An explicitly ethnopolitical symbol frequently used by Tifusi fans is the grey wolf. They raise their right arms in the air, forming a wolf shape with their hands, while shouting, “Azerbaijan is our home, and Tractor is our grey wolf.” The grey wolf, a symbol of Turkish nationalism, is regarded as a sacred animal in Turkic mythology, symbolizing pride, bravery, and strength. According to the legend of Asena, which recounts the origins of the Turkic people, a she-wolf in the Central Asian steppes nursed a boy who had been abandoned after his family was massacred in a raid. The she-wolf later gave birth to his half-human, half-wolf offspring, from whom the Turkic people descended.[12] Altogether, these stories and symbols help Tractor fans, and Azeris in general, to construct an ethnic myth of ancestry alternative to Aryanism as the well-accepted historical narrative for all Iranians regardless of their ethnic background, which emphasizes the country’s ancient pre-Islamic Persian heritage, including its language, culture, and Zoroastrian religion. Though academically rejected, Aryanism, with pride in pre-Islamic Persian history, has been sustained in popular discourses and has had an undeniable influence on Iranian identity from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Tractor fans often chant the names of geographical locations and historical sites that are symbolic of Azeri identity, such as Mount Savalan, River Aras, and Lake Urmia. Banners and flags bearing the names and pictures of these places are also waved with fervor in the stadium. Furthermore, cities with predominantly Azeri populations and the club itself are often regarded as symbols for all Azeris, as heard in the chant: “Urmia, Zanjan, Ardabil, this is the voice from/of Azerbaijan.” These references provide a concrete and tangible aspect of the imagined Azeri identity, adding a geopolitical dimension to ethnic identity formation. The homeland and its iconic geographical landscapes connect the past with the present, making history more meaningful with a sense of place. References to “the roaring of River Aras,” “the silvery charm of Lake Urmia,” and “the magnificence of Mount Sahand,” create not only an attachment to Azerbaijan but also a feeling of intimacy and loyalty to the homeland. Out of this inherent love for the homeland also grows a desire to defend it and protect its people. Consider the following song, which is chanted cheerfully by Tractor fans:

I am proud of my homeland
Long live Azerbaijan!
Our young people are with you
Long live Azerbaijan!
If you call me, I will come running
Long live Azerbaijan!
Come what may, I would even die for you
Long live Azerbaijan!


Further, Tractor fans have a unique way of expressing their Azeri identity through the name they have given to their home stadium. Although it was officially named Yadegar-e Imam in 1996, after Ahmad Khomeini, the younger son of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his right-hand man, Tractor fans prefer to call it Sahand, after one of the highest mountains in Azerbaijan. Mount Sahand holds a special place in the hearts of Azeris, and Tractor fans take pride in using this name. They view the imposition of the official name as an example of Tehran’s discriminatory mentality and as an attempt to undermine Azeri culture by replacing local names with authorized Persian ones as part of a state-led project to push towards ethnolinguistic homogeneity.

In the stadium, there are also slogans promoting Pan-Turkism, although this ideology is often condemned and suppressed by state authorities, nationalist writers, and thinkers who view it as a false identity created by enemies to distort Iranian history and isolate Azeris. Tractor fans shout slogans, calling for political unity between Turkic states, such as “Tabriz, Baku, Ankara, our path leads elsewhere than the path of the Persians,” or for union with the Republic of Azerbaijan, such as “Long live a free Azerbaijan” and “Azerbaijan should be a single country, with Tabriz as its capital.” Additionally, fans occasionally display flags of Southern Azerbaijan, the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and wear shirts featuring the Turkish and Azerbaijan flags. The Grey Wolf hand gesture is often accompanied by a military salute to the Turkish flag, and fans also chant Pan-Turkic slogans like “Azerbaijan is ours; Afghanistan is yours.” All these actions indicate a growing trend towards Tractor fans identifying more strongly as Turks.

The Pan-Turkic rhetoric used in these slogans, banners, and flags imbues Tractor fans with a distinct secessionist character, as they connect Southern Azerbaijan, its flag, and other symbols to an alternative interpretation and narrative of history. The term Southern Azerbaijan is based on a Pan-Turkist narrative about the historical existence of a united Azerbaijan on both sides of the Aras River, which was divided following the Perso-Russian wars of 1826–1828 between these two neighboring empires. The Pan-Turkist narrative legitimizes the demand for the unification of the two politically separated regions and the creation of a free, independent Azerbaijan nation-state for all Azeris. It goes beyond the less contentious demand for a federal political structure in Iran that grants self-rule to minorities, including Azeris, within the framework of the Iranian nation-state.

Not all of the Azeri rhetoric is positive, however. The slogans of Tractor fans exhibit a hostile and aggressive tone towards other Iranians and even non-Persian minorities, such as Kurds. Chauvinistic statements, including “Down with Persian fascism,” “To hell with those who do not like us,” “Long live Azerbaijan, the ill-wishers of Azerbaijan are doomed,” and “Down with Kurds,” blame non-Azeri people for the sustained Persian-centric discriminatory order over the last century. Persians are viewed as the first “others” responsible for suppressing the Azeri language and culture. Azeri national folklore and symbolism are deliberately articulated in contrast to the Persian “other.” The Azeris are depicted as a nation and a nationality that has historically resisted the nationalist narrative of Iranianness with its overemphasis on Persian heritage and language. The Kurds and their claims over western Azerbaijan are also perceived as a threat to Azeri territoriality and identity, creating a differentiation between Azeris and Kurds. Narratives of interethnic conflict are repeatedly recounted to strengthen Azeri nationalism against neighbouring Kurds.


As a complex and dynamic phenomenon, the relationship between sport and nationalism has long fascinated social scientists and politicians. While the forces of globalization were once thought to diminish the importance of nationalism and weaken its relationship with sport, this connection has actually been reinforced in recent years. Sports continue to be a powerful catalyst for nationalist sentiments and identities. In many cases, a nation’s sporting pursuits are as defining as its politics, economy, and culture, as seen in the recent example of Qatar hosting the World Cup. The tournament is a crucial part of Qatar’s state-led project to foster national pride, gain legitimacy, and create a sense of belonging among its citizens. The successful hosting of the 2022 World Cup served as a way for the nation to demonstrate its geopolitical power and economic prosperity, while also strengthening its image on the world stage.

Sport acts as a common thread woven through society to connect individuals. It presents a foundation upon which national consciousness can be built. It is a fertile ground for constructing national identity and perpetuating an imagined community in which individuals who may never meet can identify with their national team and with each other. However, just as sport represents a professed national unity, its can also become a medium for more profound social and political discontent over the state of national identity, particularly an outlet for minority resentment towards the dominant national identity narrative. Sports gatherings provide a relatively safe space for expressing otherwise repressed views and discontent; they become a site of contestation, identity claims, and nationalist performance where unrepresented minorities can wave their flags, sing their songs, and speak in their mother tongues. This study examined this use of sport as a medium of expressing repressed ethnic feelings by demonstrating how a football club, Tractor SC, founded in Tabriz and supported by Azeri ethnic minorities in Iran, goes beyond mere entertainment and athletics and becomes an effective medium for disseminating ethnic resentment and feelings.

In recent years, Iranian Azeris have increasingly voiced their desire to protect their ethnic identity, culture, and language. Tractor fans have taken advantage of Sahand Stadium, a previously neutral location, to express their beliefs in the uniqueness of Azeri ethnicity and even nationality. Through slogans, songs, and banners, Tractor fans celebrate the Azeri language and advocate for its use in Iran, as well as their right to education in their mother tongue. Additionally, they pay tribute to fallen Azeri heroes and recall their stories as an alternative ethnic narrative of the past to reinforce ethnic sentiment. The fans also proudly shout the names of iconic geographical locations symbolizing Azeri identity and enthusiastically display banners and flags bearing the names and images of these iconic sites. Tractor fans’ expressions of Pan-Azeri and Pan-Turkic sentiments, which sometimes have a chauvinistic tone, advocate for a cultural or even political union among all Turkic peoples. Collectively, these songs, slogans, and banners serve as symbolic resources that represent an ethnic alternative to the prevailing nationalistic narrative of Iranian identity. The club has become a significant badge of ethnic identity, providing fans with a set of linguistic and symbolic representations that help to maintain and reproduce their distinct sense of identity. It also contributes to the social process of defining the Azeri self and non-Azeri other, creating an “us versus them” mentality. In this way, Tractor fans use the club as an effective means of cultural resistance to celebrate Azeri identity in opposition to the Persian-centric narrative of Iranian nationalism.

[1] Mehrdad Kia, “Persian Nationalism and the Campaign for Language Purification,” Middle Eastern Studies 34, no. 2 (1998): 9–36; Touraj Atabaki, Azerbaijan: Ethnicity and the Struggle for Power in Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2000); Ahmad Ashraf, “Iranian Identity,” Encyclopaedia Iranica (2006), 522–530; Afshin Marashi, Nationalizing Iran: Culture, Power, and the State, 18701940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011); Ali M. Ansari, The Politics of Nationalism in Modern Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Abbas Amanat and Farzin Vejdani, Iran Facing Others: Identity Boundaries in a Historical Perspective (New York: Springer, 2012).

[2] Mostafa Vaziri, Iran as Imagined Nation: The Construction of National Identity (New York: Paragon House, 1993).

[3] M. Reza Ghods, “Iranian Nationalism and Reza Shah,” Middle Eastern Studies 27, no. 1 (1991): 35–45; Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, The Emergence of Iranian Nationalism: Race and the Politics of Dislocation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[4] Brenda Shaffer, Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); Alam Saleh, Ethnic Identity and the State in Iran (New York: Springer, 2013).

[5] Alireza Asgharzadeh, Iran and the Challenge of Diversity: Islamic Fundamentalism, Aryanist Racism, and Democratic Struggles (New York: Springer, 2007).

[6] Patrick Keddie, The Passion: Football and the Story of Modern Turkey (London: I.B. Tauris, 2018); also see Secen’s article in this collection.

[7] See Ryan’s article in this volume.

[8] Joan Barceló, Peter Clinton, Carles Samper Seró, “National identity, Social Institutions and Political Values: The Case of FC Barcelona and Catalonia from an Intergenerational Comparison,” Soccer & Society 16, no. 4 (2015): 469–481.

[9] Grant Farred, Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008).

[10] Asgharzadeh, Iran and the Challenge of Diversity.

[11] I.R.R. Constitution, Article XV.

[12] Hugh Poulton, The Top Hat, the Grey Wolf, and the Crescent: Turkish Nationalism and the Turkish Republic (New York: New York University Press, 1997).