Sports

Concerns Grow for Safety of Tehran's Azadi Stadium After Metropol Disaster

June 7, 2022
Payam Younesipour
7 min read
Iran's Minister of Sports has ordered an investigation after a video showed cracks running the length of the stands in Tehran's Azadi Stadium
Iran's Minister of Sports has ordered an investigation after a video showed cracks running the length of the stands in Tehran's Azadi Stadium
The 49-year-old venue has yet to undergo significant maintenance although funds were allocated years ago
The 49-year-old venue has yet to undergo significant maintenance although funds were allocated years ago
As far back as 2005, then-Azadi Complex director Hassan Zia Azari had pleaded for repairs to be carried out on the "totally concrete structure"
As far back as 2005, then-Azadi Complex director Hassan Zia Azari had pleaded for repairs to be carried out on the "totally concrete structure"

The fatal collapse of the Metropol building in Abadan has sparked a wider discussion on the issue of building safety in Iran. A recent expert assessment found that in the last 50 years, the average useful lifespan of a building in Iran has fallen from an average of 32 years to 26. In the immediate present, an exclusive report by Ensaf News published on May 29 has listed 129 unsafe buildings in Tehran alone.

The list of high-risk properties as it stood in 2020-21 came from the city council itself. Former chairman Mohsen Hashemi confirmed its authenticity to Ensaf News, adding that the security agencies had not agreed to its publication. Among other things, the list features a number of university and hospital buildings. Immediately after its publication, Tehran Fire Department issued a statement saying it did not consider the contents valid.

Ensaf's list ran only to those 129 considered in a "critical" state of repair. In total, it was reported, another 200 had recently undergone remedial works. One building not mentioned in the report, but which was also recently cause for grave concern, was Tehran's Azadi Stadium.

On Thursday, June 2, an Instagram user posted a video that appeared to show alarmingly deep cracks running along the stands of the 49-year-old venue. It was taken down within days, replaced with flurry of reports in state media saying that Minister of Sports Hamid Sajjadi had ordered an urgent investigation into the stadium's condition.

Is Azadi Stadium Still Safe?

The former Aryamehr Stadium, now Azadi Stadium, was inaugurated by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi on October 17, 1971. It was built to host the 1974 Asian Games and not long afterward hosted the 1976 AFC Asian Cup.

The designer of the complex was Abdolaziz Farmanfarmaian, a renowned architect behind more than 20 large structures in Tehran, including Mehrabad Airport, the Carpet Museum of Iran, Saman Towers, the first high-rise residential buildings in Tehran, Niavaran Palace complex, the headquarters of the Iranian National Radio and TV Organization, and Saadabad Queen Mother Palace. He was also the original architect of what is now Imam Khomeini International Airport.

Azadi Stadium is one of the 10 largest football stadiums in the world. But more than a decade and a half ago in 2005, Azadi Complex director Hassan Zia Azari had warned ISNA News Agency it was overdue repairs for which the money had yet to be released. “We are dealing with a totally concrete structure that's more than three decades old," he said.

Exactly one year later, the water pipes in the stadium froze, rendering it unusable for a week. “We have no idea about what goes on in the belly of this stadium," Azari pleaded again. "This stadium has layers within layers that have become rusty but we don't know what's happening inside the structure."

Hassan Zia Azari would eventually resign in frustration in December 2010. He was not the only one to have raised concerns about the safety of this building and others; the reformest politician Mohsen Mehr-Alizadeh, during his last days as head of the National Sports Organization of Iran under President Khatami, stated baldly in 2005: “The lack of standards at Iranian stadiums threatens the lives of spectators."

Then on February 5, 2018, ISNA news agency published a report about deep cracks running through the stands. When it rains, the report said, water pours down onto the seats through cracks in the roof. ISNA also reported that a year earlier Mostafa Modabber, a former head of the Sports Ministry’s Sports Facilities Development and Maintenance Company, had said a budget of 160 billion tomans (close to $27 million at the time) had been set aside to reinforce and renovate Azadi Sports Complex over the next two years, but nobody knew how this budget had been spent.

Where Are the New Stadiums?

“This stadium was inaugurated in 1971, thanks to the honorable Iranian nation’s endeavor and capital," reads the legend emblazoned in big letters on the western gate of Azadi Stadium. But it begs the question: Why, then, since 1971, has no comparable stadium been built “thanks to the honorable Iranian nation’s endeavor and capital”?

Since 1971, important and international football, volleyball, basketball and wrestling competitions in Tehran have all always been held at the Azadi Complex, the Shiroudi Sport Complex (formerly Amjadiyeh Stadium) and sometimes the Takhti Stadium (formerly Farah Stadium).

Besides gymnasiums, just one relatively standard football stadium has been built since the 1979 revolution. Called Shahid Dastgerdi Stadium, also known as the PAS Tehran Stadium, it was constructed in the 1980s after the Iran-Iraq and houses just 8,250 spectators. It it has not been able to host the AFC Champions League as hoped because the Asian Football Confederation has stringent requirements for would-be host countries, clubs and venues.

The planned Naghsh Jahan Stadium, with a capacity of 75,000, in Isfahan, and Yadegar Emam Stadium, with capacity of 68,833, in Tabriz, were designed before the revolution. Naghsh Jahan Stadium took more than 30 years to build and was finally inaugurated in 2016, while Yadegar Emam Stadium is still under construction more than 42 years later. Resourcing is not what it was; in 2018, when President Rouhani’s Sports Minister Masoud Soltanifar visited Azadi Stadium, he called it a “national asset” and said it would now cost more than 500 billion tomans ($37 million) to build something similar.

In the absence of other good-sized stadiums in Tehran and with reports of structural wear and tear at Azadi Stadium, there are mounting fears of a potential collapse. Azadi Stadium will host at least two derbies this year, and potentially some friendly games before the World Cup. With a formal capacity of 78,116, often exceeded by the actual number of spectators, the scale of any mishap at Azadi could be disastrous.

How a Visit by Ghalibaf Ended in Tragedy

The stadium has already seen its fare share of calamities over nearly 50 years history. In one incident on March 25, 2005, seven people were reported to have been killed after a match between Team Melli and Japan, trampled to death as a 100,000-strong crowd moved to leave the venue. More than 40 others were injured.

In the immediate aftermath, FIFA wrote to the Iranian Football Federation and called the officially-given number of fatalities “suspicious”. The world football body said it had received reports from sources inside Iran claiming the real number of victims had been higher than announced. It asked for "immediate, accurate and transparent answers" about the cause and scale of the incident.

A few minutes before the game started, a helicopter arrived at the stadium carrying Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, then chief of the national police force and former IRGC Air Force commander. Contrary to early arrangements and on the direct orders from Ghalibaf himself, the helicopter did not land in the prearranged spot but on the ground east of the stadium, where ordinary ticket-holders enter or leave.

After the game was finished, police blocked four of the stadium’s eight exits. Of the remaining four, one was blocked by Ghalibaf’s helicopter, leaving only three ways out. The crowds were funnelled out of these, leading to the fatal crush.

Later, judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimi Rad called the incident an "unfortunate accident". Stadium managers and the police were jointly accountable, he said, but the experts appointed by different parties, including the Supreme National Security Council, never agreed on the degree of responsibility held by each party. Stakeholders simply pointed fingers at one another until the tragedy faded from memory.

The Stadium that Did Collapse

On May 6, 2001, Persepolis FC competed against Shamoushak Noshahr FC at Mottaghi Stadium in Sari, capital of the northern province of Mazandaran. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) did not assess the game to be important enough to broadcast live. But the TV cameras were present and recorded every moment of the game for airing later on.

However, when the game was shown on TV, it was missing the halftime. That was because during the break, part of the ceiling over the stands fell in. It was never fully ascertained how many people were packed into the venue that day, but the Noshahr Football League had sold more than 25,000 tickets while referee Hossein Arab Boraghi later said at least 30,000 were present.  A large number were sitting on the asbestos cement roof.

In addition, the real number of people killed and their identities never came to light. The IRIB claimed two people had died, two had broken their backs and more than 100 suffered other injuries. Years later, Sohrab Entezari, who then played for Shamoushak Noshahr and later joined Persepolis, said the deaht toll had stood at more than 25. There were still grieving families in his hometown, he said, that "nobody knows about". 

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