On Monday, June 16, Iran will kick off its FIFA World Cup campaign in Brazil with a match against Nigeria. It’s likely to be the start of a disappointing campaign. If Iran is to qualify for the next round, it will have to finish at least second in a group containing Argentina and Bosnia. It’s a tough task, to say the least.
Preparations have not been good. International sanctions on Iran targeting the country’s access to the international banking system have stymied the ability of the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) to collect funds from various international bodies. A series of pre-planned friendlies and a training camp in Portugal—vital preparation for the World Cup—were canceled because the travel and accommodation costs involved were too expensive.
Iran did manage to organize friendly fixtures against Belarus and Montenegro, both resulting in drab goalless draws, though they did beat Trinidad and Tobago 2–0 in their final warm-up game, for what that’s worth. Iran’s manager, Carlos Queiroz, who was formerly manager of the Portuguese national team and assistant manager at Manchester United, was blunt about the impact of all these problems: “Those who think Iran’s national team will be successful with only 14 days of preparation are either crazy or living in Disneyland,” he said.
Iranians adore football. It is their national sport and, in a society where public displays of emotion are remorselessly policed, the game provides a rare emotional outlet for the people. Thousands poured onto the streets to celebrate Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the June 2013 presidential elections, but even more turned out the following week to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the World Cup. One of the first international meetings Rouhani had after taking office was with FIFA chief Sepp Blatter.
Iranian politicians have long understood the political opportunities football affords. No one more so than former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose populist instincts meant he was forever having himself filmed practicing with the national team and mixing with its more popular players in efforts to boost his public image. A WikiLeaks cable from June 2009 entitled “Iran’s First Fan: Dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad may extend from the soccer pitch to the ballot box,” details his almost pathological desire to bask in the reflected glory of the beautiful game: Ahmadinejad “has staked a great deal of political capital in Iranian soccer,” the cable read. “A personal fan and former player, Ahmadinejad has made several press appearances practicing with Team Melli,” the national team’s nickname.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the national team’s performance during the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign even led Ahmadinejad (in clear defiance of FIFA rules, which prohibit political interference in international football) to sack the team’s coach, former player and national icon Ali Daei, and insist that star midfielder Ali Karimi be recalled to the side. Such was Ahmadinejad’s faith in the populist hold of football on the national imagination that he believed victory in a vital qualifier two days before the 2009 presidential elections against the UAE was critical, because he believed he could not “afford a loss on the eve of the election in such a tight race,” according to the same WikiLeaks cable.
But being such a powerful repository of public sentiment, football is a double-edged sword for the regime. Iran subsequently beat the UAE 1–0 at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran—thanks to a Karimi goal, no less—but after Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent “victory” in the elections, Iranians across the country nevertheless rose up in protest against him. Two days later, Karimi, clearly feeling no debt to Ahmadinejad, led the national team onto the pitch for Iran’s final qualifying game against South Korea wearing a green armband to show solidarity with the Green Movement that had emerged to oppose the regime. At any rate, the team drew 1–1 and failed to qualify. Perhaps Ahmadinejad should have remembered the old expression about being careful what you wish for.
But the truth is that the state cannot leave football alone. It owns the vast majority of Iranian league clubs, either directly or through subsidiaries. More worryingly, the Revolutionary Guards, always eager to colonize areas of Iranian life they deem important, is firmly entrenched in the game. Many former commanders hold important posts among Iran’s top teams, and much of the domestic league’s merchandising and TV revenue finds its way into the organization’s coffers.
Despite all this, by virtue of its popularity, football in Iran remains impossible to completely control, even for a regime as fastidiously oppressive as the Islamic Republic. Its ability to generate mass emotion among Iranians is just as dangerous for the mullahs as it is empowering for the people
Nowhere is this more true—on both counts—than in the area of women’s rights. Women are banned from attending matches between male teams in Iran. Just after the national team qualified for the 1998 World Cup after a crucial victory in Australia, the government, fearful it could not contain the popular outpouring of joy that would greet the team’s arrival in Tehran, ordered it to delay its return by three days. Of particular worry was the horrific prospect of women celebrating in the streets. The team eventually landed in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium by helicopter—but only after hundreds of women had forced their way in. The regime turned a blind eye. It was a rare victory for women’s rights in Iran.
Ever true to his populist instincts, Ahmadinejad—thinking he might get a few votes out of it—lifted the ban on women attending football matches in 2006, allowing them their own section in stadiums, but this policy (just about his only good one) was too much for the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who swiftly overturned it.
Whether Iran will be able to qualify for the second round of the World Cup is debatable. But one thing is clear: win or lose, emotionally charged Iranians will once again be gathering in their millions to rally around a single, national cause. Who knows where it may lead?
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.