The Prince of Persia and the King of Cones

Iran is a huge country, with a rich, diverse and complex cultural and political history, but for now I only want to touch upon the great experiences we have had, and on the rugby establishment, which I am pleased to say is fantastic and with a promising future.

A quick internet search of travel accounts in Iran and you will find mostly positive feedback. We will add one seriously big “thumbs up” to this list, although I’m told literal “thumbs up” is actually a little offensive. Taking every story with a pinch of salt, I expected to find balancing evidence somewhere along the road. I found it in the bathroom. Assured by a most proficient part time plumber in London, hot water is always plumbed on the same side to avoid blind people from difficulties. I’ll happily run a public vote on what is worse, arctic water down your spine, or scorching water on your genitals, but to me they were both equally, not to mention regularly, displeasurable. Do the right thing and tell a blind person about this today.


Despite a seriously chaotic situation at the Azeri-Iran border, which was made easier by a helpful (if not  drunken) Iranian market trader, we got off to a fairly successful start. After our 2 hour process to pass through passport control, give our finger prints and satisfy the questions of the general inquisition we were suddenly set free to pedal onwards into the afternoon. We passed on through Astara and covered about 2km before hiding behind a wall to scoff some lunch during Ramadan. Here started our Iranian story.

You can NOT cycle through Iran unnoticed. Not only will people notice you, but the people at the end of the road will already know about you and will be waiting. Many teenagers are learning English privately, organised by random individuals who have taken it upon themselves to learn, and then teach. It was some students who spotted us early in Iran and we were discovered by their English teacher Mike as we sat cowering behind the wall. It is rarely interesting to read personal accounts of people’s travels so I won’t bore you with the details. If you like though, next time you see me at the bar, remind me to tell you all about my greatest tries.

(NB: If you are actually coming to Iran, we have a heap of people who would love to meet and host you. E-mail us and we can put you in touch. You can’t fault Iran for hospitality and friendliness. If you are a cyclist in Iran, you will have a great time, simple as.)

The standard of English in Iranian cities is much more than just adequate. Even in small villages you will be quickly guided to anyone who can translate for you. We were often surprised at how regularly we were approached by accountants, professors or doctors in even the most remote parts. Although the basic “Farsi” words are easy to grasp, conquering the language is a whole different game. A new alphabet is combined with writing in reverse, in many different styles, and omitting vowels. It is assumed that you learnt the sounds between the consonants when you were a child. Further, they often use the same word for multiple meanings. Take the Farsi word for “milk” (shirh), it is also used for “tap”, and “lion”. I don’t like to criticise a language that I don’t even speak, but if you told me you had a milk problem, surely I would have to turn up with a spanner, a shotgun and a straw just to be sure I could help? Thankfully, of the apparent 357 Arabic and Persian variations on the word “Thankyou”, “Merci” is the most widely used.

Now let’s talk about the rugby, and for the first time a glimpse into real Asian rugby.

The current rugby population started around 1996, when a PE teacher tried to introduce the sport into a university. He had never actually seen it in practice, but had a PE textbook explaining various sports. Looking for new disciplines to teach his students, he saw rugby and believed this comprised a healthy balance of strength, stamina and control. Comically, the textbook was American and so did not help the confusion linking rugby with American sports. Still today, the religious leaders see the sport as a symbol of America.

As seems standard across the planet, he began teaching the sport from the textbook using a deflated soccer ball. One particular student was a man called Amir Ekrami. Amir immediately sought more information on the internet and discovered that Rugby had first emerged in Iran during the 1950s and 1960s (thankfully brought by the English army during the colonial days rather than the French). He made contact with one particular Major, who is still alive somewhere in the country, to find out more information on the rules. Back in the previous generation, they had arranged matches between the military and the local petrol companies but rugby was just a small expat community sport, and had not been adopted by the Persian culture.

Only around 1998 was the sport first properly identified, when it was housed under a four sport federation (Cricket, Rugby, Softball and Baseball). It slowly spread into universities and numbers increased. By 2005, the rugby pioneers (including Amir who is now General Secretary) had an organised structure in place but sought a president, someone who could make a big impact on the sport and get things moving.  Fortunately for Iranian rugby, they found a man who could take them forward, Hossein Sadegh Abedin. With a strong resume in business and politics, his impact was immediate. In the first year, he took Iran into the ARFU (Asian Rugby Football Union). This now meant competing in an official league structure. The ARFU structure is laid out as follows:

Asian 5 nations
Asian 1
Asian 2
Asian 3
Asian 4
Asian (domestic/regional)

Unlike the European structure, each season is completed in just one year. This allows for greater opportunity for fast-track progression, not to mention more regular fixtures. Iran flew through the domestic league in their opening season, before winning both the Asian 4 and Asian 3 in consecutive seasons. In 2010/2011 they will compete alongside India, Thailand, and Chinese Taipei. To date, the side have only suffered 1 single loss, a 15-0 defeat to the Philippines, a side comprised of mostly “passport” players.

When asking the president of his 5 year plan, he may have jovially suggested breaking into the Asian 5 Nations, but at the same time, you feel that serious intentions exist to gatecrash this party. I, for one, will be following Asian rugby with much interest next season to see how they fair in Asia 2.  Mr Abedin does not appear a man to half finish a job. He is well acquainted in business and politics, and has a long history of friendship with even the President himself. He laughs at how his ministerial friends joke about his rugby ventures and is the first to admit that taking on rugby was the biggest headache of his professional life. After 4 years of work, and now with strong friendships in the rugby community he feels a passion to succeed now more than ever.  He is currently looking to gain IRB recognition, and at a recent ARFU conference has initiated talks to launch Iranian rugby into a greater international environment.

Just 6 months ago, rugby was officially separated from the 4 sport federation and is now the dominant voice in a “Rugby and Cricket Federation”, of which Mr Abedin is president to both. Due to visa difficulties, it is tricky to organise regular international competition, but thankfully, Iran governs a tax and visa free island in the Gulf called Kish Island. This has been home to the annual Kish 7s tournament, approaching its 5th year. Although currently a domestic 7s competition, they hope that this will be a full international 7s tournament in the coming seasons.

Domestically, Iran has 16 male teams, divided into 2 leagues of 8. There is a straight forward 2 up, 2 down promotion/relegation system, but I later found that the country itself contains many more teams. It emerges that most towns run at least a handful of sides that compete outside of this league structure. The sport now has over 5,000 male players and perhaps surprisingly over 1,000 female players. The female participation in this sport at first appears a mystery. Whilst trying to stay clear of religion and politics, most wouldn’t have picked an Islamic Republic to see such female interest in a contact sport. Nevertheless, girls everywhere are taking to the game wearing the Islamic hejab, and the national side are now proving competitive even in the international environment. The side have recently returned from their first overseas experience, a 7s tournament in Cortina. Cortina 7s tournament is the 2nd largest behind Rome 7s and in 2010 the Iran ladies side only lost to Italy in the final. Already, there are qualified Iranian female referees. This is not even seen in Italy, who have been running a ladies section for many more years.

We travelled through Iran offseason and during Ramadan, therefore it wasn’t easy to schedule meetings with many players on our journey. Following Ramadan, we did manage to catch with the country’s premier rugby club, Shiraz RFC in the “Fars” region, and what a great experience it was. The club is lead by the empowering smile of the player/coach and prop, Mahiar.

By day he runs the family ice cream business, serving up tempting specialities that would lead to most players developing “prop” physiques.  As evening approaches, he swaps his scoops for dumbbells, squeezing in his personal workout before coaching the local side. The one man seemingly unaffected by the sugar overdoses is Mahiar himself, who at 31 years old, was the most athletic front rower I have ever seen. I caught up with him only weeks after his official international retirement. He has been ever present in the Iranian national squad since the ARFU inclusion, only missing 2 matches through injury, 1 of which was the side’s single loss to the Philippines. With 7 international matches, and 7 international victories under his belt, the “King of Cones” must surely be one of the world’s most successful players. He now concentrates on his coaching role with the national side, and his local club where he will play this season to help defend the title.


Through e-mails and travels through Eastern Europe we had been prepped for what to expect. Most commonly, the Iranian national side had been described as “towering and athletic”. I too can now vouch for this. In a land of fake sportswear and plastic noses, the rugby is very real. Watch out Asia!!

We are now in Dubai to learn more about the recent dismantlement of the AGRFU (Arabian Gulf Rugby Football Union) and the future plans for Arabian rugby…..

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3 Responses

  1. Hello, Jodie and Tom:

    Your blogs are an absolute joy to read. You are doing fantastically well and while your travellers’ tales are an inspiration, it’s astonishing that you have cycled so far already! Best of luck to you both and looking forward to the next update. Such freedom to be travelling as you are and experiencing the kindness of strangers.

    Am in awe!

    Best wishes from
    Julie

  2. Greetings from Mumbai. Thomas this is all fascinating, but please remember that plumbers guard their secrets as closely as the magic circle. Hot on the left in the UK. That’s what they teach guide dogs so they can run a bath for their masters.

  3. Hello Tom,
    I just read your story and was very fascinate by your account. I just wanted to add a bit more to your account. I was the assistant coach for the first Iranian rugby national side, and I was the manager of the side which lost to the philippines in manila. Your friend Mahyar, “king of the cones”, is now leading the national team for their upcoming Asian division 2 tournament in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

    Best wishes
    Joseph Grigorian

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