Iran may have lost to Argentina thanks to a Lionel Messi strike in the dying seconds of their World Cup match on Saturday, but that didn’t stop the Tehran street party that rattled the authorities. Large numbers of Iranians converged on the streets, dancing on overpasses, overrunning major thoroughfares, chanting and blaring music out of cars, in an outpouring of popular celebration that prompted the authorities to send plainclothes security agents on motorbikes through the crowds to disperse them. Riot police had locked down thoroughfares like Tehran’s busy Parkway intersection, but young people flooded into side streets to carry on their festivities, buoyed by the Iranian national soccer team’s strong showing against top-ranked Argentina.
Most neutral commentators concurred that the Iranian team had mounted a superb effort and had been unlucky to be denied at least a draw against the two-time World Cup champions. “This dignified loss means more to us than any win,” said one young man dancing with his friends on the street.
Despite the heavy police presence across the city, the unexpected outpouring for Team Melli — as the national soccer team is known — stayed strictly in the spirit of fun. Young peopled flew the Iranian flag from their motorbikes and chanted their thanks to individual players, but their commotion carried none of the political overtones of past public celebrations around the World Cup. Instead, most seemed content to have Team Melli project a new image of Iran to the world, that of a moderate, soccer-loving nation, progressive enough to have an endangered species, the Asian cheetah, on its team uniform. “The national team and their fans can both improve Iran’s reputation, and if the government cooperates and doesn’t crack down, that will boost people’s sense of hope,” said Ali, a 28-year-old event manager. “Iranians are more depressed today than any other time, so a little bit of happiness can make it better.”
It’s precisely that prospect of hopefulness, though, that some say led the Iranian regime to deliberately stanch public excitement in advance of the World Cup. Security authorities took the unprecedented step of banning the broadcast of matches in public cinemas and cafés, effectively barring Iranians from experiencing the matches as collective events.
In 2010 authorities had allowed crowds of men and women to watch the World Cup in cinemas across the country, just months after the country’s Green movement uprising. At that delicate time, some Iranian players wore green armbands on the field to show solidarity with protesters, and young people chanted political slogans in those packed cinemas in support of jailed opposition leaders.
But today, with the national mood one of malaise and little prospect of political unrest, the banning of public screenings seems to reflect Iranian hard-liners’ determination to undermine the government of President Hassan Rouhani. “The security forces are trying to disillusion the pro-Rouhani electorate,” said one political analyst who asked to remain anonymous because of his strong political connections inside Iran. “It makes it seem as though nothing has changed under him, that basic things like watching football are being rolled back.”
Slide show: Watching the World Cup in Tehran
Decisions over whether to allow public screenings are the preserve of Iran’s security forces, and unlike in 2010, during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, those forces are not under the control of the administration.
Ever since 1998, when Iran qualified for the World Cup for the first time since the 1979 revolution, public celebrations around football have carried the potential for social upheaval. After Iran’s 1998 qualifying win against Australia, millions poured into the streets of Tehran to express their joy, both at the prospect of being included in the World Cup and, more symbolically, at the country’s return into the global fold after years of isolation. For the regime, however, the spectacle of the largest crowds on the capital’s streets since the revolution itself was deeply worrying — an anxiety amplified by the landslide election of a reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, the previous year.
“The system was worried that this social force that is not usually able to express itself would harness its demands to the new government in power, and start seeking greater social freedoms,” said the political analyst. “They were totally unprepared for this.” When Iran went on to play and beat the United States in its second game, ecstatic fans once again took over the capital’s streets, prompting Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — who by his own admission “rarely” follows football — to congratulate the national team for “[making] the Iranian nation happy.” Khamenei later told the prominent Iranian sports presenter Adel Ferdosipour that he had kissed the forehead of the Iranian striker who scored the goal against the Great Satan.
Those 1998 matches and the public response sealed the importance of football to Iranian politics, both as a potentially destabilizing outlet for young people’s discontent and as a vehicle for politicians to boost their popularity by pandering to fans’ enthusiasm. Ahmadinejad, a former amateur player, famously had himself photographed training with the national team in 2006 to enhance his populist image. He also permitted public screenings of the 2010 World Cup, despite the potential for challenge to his own presidency. In 2006 he even petitioned the head of the Iranian Physical Education Organization to lift the ban on women attending football games at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, despite knowing full well that senior clerics would likely block the move.
Although the authorities’ decision this month to block mixed cinema broadcasts of the World Cup did not provoke much outcry, women did protest outside Azadi Stadium this past weekend, against the Iranian Volleyball Federation’s decision to bar them from attending volleyball games. Police beat and detained Fatemeh Jamalpour, a woman reporter for the independent newspaper Shargh, who was covering the protest.
Such moments of police violence against fans and severe restrictions on spectatorship function to demoralize Iranians already struggling with inflation, currency fluctuations and other symptoms of the decline of their country’s sanctions-hit economy.
Many of those on the streets following the Argentina game offered a nuanced view on the significance for Iran of its team’s positive showing at the World Cup. “Iran’s name will pop up in the headlines, but finally for something positive,” said Iman, a 33-year-old accountant. “Though I’m not talking about our government and those in power, I’m talking about [the reputation] of the Iranian people.”
As young people a week earlier had struggled to find venues to watch Iran’s first game, against Nigeria, one group of friends in the Jordan neighborhood decided to project the match on the concrete wall of an adjoining apartment building. They set up deck chairs and watched in the orange glow thrown by the street lamps, debating whether any of this — street celebrations, Team Melli’s publicity successes, President Rouhani’s tweeted selfie of him watching the game in his living room — would recast Iran’s standing internationally. One was adamant that nothing would improve, that the country’s image would soon revert to form and that the nights of mostly tolerated street celebrations would soon be forgotten. The others agreed that it was hard to tell. “We can’t say whether anything will improve for us,” said Ava. “We can only hold our breath and hope for it.”