Kamran Jebreili / AP
Sports
Kamran Jebreili / AP

In Iran, the World Cup is a perennial political tinderbox

Unable to shackle the passion on the streets spurred by the nation’s soccer team, the regime has sought to harness it

One of the unintended consequences of fixed-term elections is that it can lock the rhythm of politics into to the rhythms of football. Brazil’s quadrennial October presidential contests are always prefaced – and often inflected – by the Seleçao’s summer World Cup campaign. In Iran, too, the cycle of presidential elections has coincided with the culmination of the nation’s World Cup qualifying campaigns; for a country whose relationship with the international community has been so complex and problematic, the presence of Team Melli (as they are known) at the tournament has taken on immense significance.

Football had served as an instrument of soft power and modernization under the Shah, and suffered accordingly during the first decade of the Islamic revolution. Deemed by the theocracy to be at best, foreign and decadent, at worst, blasphemous, football was frowned upon and virtually ground to a halt during the long war with Iraq.

The game’s revival and reformist credentials were clearly established during the 1997 presidential election that pitched the conservative Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri against the more moderate Mohammad Khatami. Nateq Nouri shared his platform with the leading wrestlers of the day; while the victorious Khatami included footballers in his political entourage. 

The opening months of his presidency coincided with the qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup. When Iran lost to Qatar and then Japan, forcing them into a play-off against Australia, the new regime made a clear statement moderating Tehran’s revolutionary xenophobia: It appointed a foreign coach, Brazilian Vladimir Viera.

Iran beat Australia, and on the final whistle the streets of Tehran and every provincial city filled with people – perhaps as many as six million nationwide. The crowds defied and taunted clerics and the Basiji militias. Women and men openly mixed, some abandoned the veil others danced on the roofs of the Toyota trucks used by the moral militias. The crowd took flowers to the French embassy and cheered “See you in Paris”. When the national team returned to the city, 5,000 women – then and now excluded from the national team’s games – stormed the Azadi stadium to honor the players.

In late 2001 an Iran victory over Iraq saw tens of thousands of youths celebrating in Tehran only to be dispersed by tear gas and police baton charges. Ten days later Bahrain beat Iran, forcing them into a qualifying play-off against Ireland. A rumor on the streets that the regime had told the team to throw the match to prevent another outburst of public celebration prompted pitched battles in Tehran and Esfahan. Iran went on to lose to Ireland.

Three weeks before the 2005 presidential elections, between wealthy businessman and pragmatist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran qualified for the 2006 World Cup, beating Bahrain 1-0. As ever people took to the streets to dance, women removed their headscarves and in the Resalat neighborhood of Tehran shopkeepers gave away flowers to the crowd. Iranian flags with Rafsanjani’s face in the center were handed out and flown, but there were reports of the same flag being flown with his face cut out.

Ahmadinejad won the elections, but he was a different kind of conservative, with a strong base among the working class and the veterans of Iran’s devastating war with Iraq – a man who enjoyed football, and grasped its political import. He took a close interest in the performance of the national team, was a regular visitor to their training camps, and is widely thought to have interfered in the fate of coaches. After Ali Daei’s team failed to make it to South Africa 2010, government supporters received a text reading “Due to the importance of national public opinion to Dr. Ahmadinejad, Ali Daei has been forced out”.

Ahmadinejad was returned to office in the disputed election of 2009, and then had to face down a gigantic series of protests by the Green Movement that had backed opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi. Even after the protest movement had been crushed at home, Iran’s final qualifying game against South Korea in Seoul offered an opportunity for resistance. Six players took to the field wearing green wristbands. Team officials initially tried to claim that these were Islamic symbols designed to help the players overcome the Koreans, but the meaning was clear to everyone else.

A change of political fortune has, it appears, defused emotions over the most recent World Cup qualifying campaign. In 2013, the moderate Hassan Rouhani decisively beat his conservative opponents to become president of Iran. Less than a week later the nation qualified for this year’s World Cup, once again playing South Korea in Seoul. The game was a draw and that was enough for Iran (and, as it transpired later, for South Korea too). At home hundreds of thousands partied peacefully. Clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even hailed the team for bringing national happiness. The only violence came in Seoul, where the Iranian players’ wild celebrations on the pitch after the game prompted Korean fans to hurl abuse, bottles and cans at them. 

Iran’s national team has become a truly national institution, able to attract the support of the secular and the religious, both moderate and conservative forces in Iran. This year universities and schools have changed the exam and holiday schedules to accommodate the World Cup. Public viewing areas are being set up in parks and squares. The country will shut down when the team plays.

Expectations, however, are phenomenally low. In 2006 Iran took just a single point from their three games. This time, Iran’s group – Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia – offers no easy points and no realistic prospect of getting through to the next round. Coach Carlos Queiroz – a Mozambique-born Portuguese national who has coached South Africa and at Manchester United – has said as much. 

The problem, this time, is not political infighting but, as with so much in Iran, economics and the long-term impact of international sanctions. Unable to organize or fund international games, or persuade the Iranian big clubs to release their players when they are needed, the national team will be the least prepared of any at Brazil 2014. They have played just one friendly this year. At a recent camp in South Africa, effectively abandoned due to low turnout, players were issued with just one track suit for three weeks’ training. In this regard they are truly a team of the people – economically squeezed and for the moment stoic in defeat. Given the passion and pressures currently under wraps in Iran one wonders what a victory – however improbable – might mean.

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