With so much attention focused on Iran’s upcoming presidential election, another contest of great domestic and international importance is going largely unnoticed by the media: the FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
Iran’s national football squad, Team Melli, will play several qualifying games over the next few weeks, including against Qatar on June 4, Lebanon on June 11, and South Korea, perhaps its most daunting competitor, on June 18.
The Lebanon match, taking place just three days before the June 14 election, will be held at the roughly 120,000-seat Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
For years, Iran’s contentious domestic politics and love for “the beautiful game” have intersected, and sometimes collided, inspiring Iranians to take the streets to express their joy as well as their grievances. This June may be no different.
Football under the Pahlavi Dynasty
Imported to the country by British oil workers and promoted by monarch Reza Shah as a symbol of modernization, football has been played in Iran since the 1920s. The Shah razed mosques to make room for football fields. During the reign of his son and successor, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a national football federation was established in 1947. With the expansion of widespread television use during the 1960s, football quickly made its way into the homes and hearts of the Iranian people.
At the 1968 Asia Nations Cup, which was hosted by Iran, a match against Israel caused a national fervor, transforming football into the country’s most popular spectator sport. Beating Israel 2-1 to win the championship, Iran dealt a symbolic blow on behalf of its neighbors – a year into Israel’s then-nascent occupation of the Palestinian territories, the Arab states had boycotted the tournament in retaliation for the Six Day War, which had taken place in June 1967.
The two teams would meet again as finalists in 1974, a year after the October War. Again, Iran defeated Israel in a 1-0 shutout.
In the years leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Shah was pilloried by some opposition groups for attempting to promote football to “keep the population apolitical.” Some even referred to football as a “sinister plot” used by the Iranian government “to divert public attention from ‘serious’ matters.”
Football under Khomeini
Following the revolution, football lost much of its state support and popularity. Mired in a bloody eight-year war with Iraq, the new Islamic Republic did little to encourage participation or interest in sports. Still, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, once reportedly remarked, “I am not an athlete, but I like athletes,” for whatever such an innocuous statement may be worth.
It was not until 1989, after the war ended, that the Iranian national football re-emerged, energized and emboldened by a new generation of football stars such as Ahmad Reza Abedzadeh, Karim Bagheri, Khodadad Azizi, Mehdi Mahdavikia, and Ali Daei, FIFA’s reigning all-time leading international goal-scorer.
Football during the Khatami Years
In November 1997, just months after reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected president, Iran advanced to the 1998 World Cup after a series of games with Australia. 128,000 fans crammed into Azadi Stadium for the first match. The second, and decisive, game was played in Melbourne. Reacting to Iran’s qualification for the tournament, their first since the transformative year of 1978, Iranians rapturously demonstrated both the widespread popularity and power of the game inside the country.
People throughout Iran took to the streets, dancing, chanting nationalist slogans, blasting banned music, and handing out sweets to strangers. Despite the regime’s prior warnings against “secular” activities, there were taboo displays of public drunkenness. Some women even threw off their hijabs, while the kommiteh (morality police) helplessly looked on. Showing up to quell the revelry, security forces, including the basij, were invited to join the celebration. Many did.
More shocking than the outpouring of jubilation and excitement over what many called Iran’s triumphant “football revolution” was the successful attempt by thousands of women to make their way into Azadi Stadium, from which they were officially banned, to greet the returning Team Melli players three days later. Ironically, azadi means “freedom.” Securing women’s entrance to football matches would become an important issue for Iranian feminists during this period.
In June 1998, the Iranian people again had reason to celebrate when Iran beat the United States, 2-1, at a FIFA World Cup match in France. After the game, the teams exchanged gifts and even took a group photo. Such was the nature of their sportsmanship at the game that both teams won that year’s FIFA Fair Play Award.
In the aftermath of the match, the atmosphere in Iran was euphoric, as people all across the country filled the streets, reportedly celebrating for several days. There was no anti-Americanism in sight at these celebrations. Thanks to the Iranian diaspora, the streets of various American cities including Los Angeles – also known as Tehrangeles, home to the largest Iranian community in the United States – also witnessed, if only for a moment, the public expression of Iranian pride.
As New Jersey resident Maryam Shargh recalled, “We were thrilled, and we didn’t remember if it was the “Islamic Republic of” or the “Golden Lion of” — it was just … Iran.”
Famously, U.S. President Bill Clinton took a moment to make a speech before the game, expressing hope that the event would be “another step toward ending the estrangement between” the former allies and encourage better relations between the two countries.
When their national team failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Iranians were devastated. With rumors circulating that the loss had been fixed among politically biased diaspora TV channels in L.A., people in Iran rioted, even ransacking some buildings. As with most sports-driven mayhem, the demonstrations were short-lived.
In June 2005, as President Mohamed Khatami’s second term was winding down and presidential campaigns were heating up, Iran was again busy with World Cup qualifiers. As the matches took place, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and former Iranian police chief Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf all campaigned for the Iranian presidency.
When Iran won its qualifying game, public celebration was rampant. This time, campaigners – particularly those working for Hashemi and Ghalibaf – handed out political flyers and bumper stickers to the jubilant crowds, cleverly merging campaign strategy with national solidarity.
Football during the Ahmadinejad Years
Conservative clerics were furious. Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took their side, publicly overruling Ahmadinejad in what was perhaps a preview of future confrontations between the two men.
During the years of his presidency, it became clear that Ahmadinejad was, in fact, a football fanatic. He was often seen scrimmaging with Team Melli and even foreign dignitaries, such as Bolivian President Evo Morales.
In 2006, Ahmadinejad stated his intention to attend Iran’s World Cup matches in Germany, prompting protests by German pro-Israel groups.
Ahmadinejad’s obsession with football was so well known and his presence at games so common that Iranians began accusing him of ‘jinxing’ matches – it appeared to them that every time he attended a Team Melli game, the national team lost.
On occasion, Ahmadinejad used his presidential influence to take action on certain football-related matters, going so far as to lift a 2008 suspension against Iranian football star Ali Karimi so that he could play in the 2010 World Cup qualifying matches. Ahmadinejad also reportedly had Iranian football great Ali Daei fired as the national team’s coach after a World Cup qualifying loss to Saudi Arabia in March 2009. Two weeks later, the president dismissed Daei’s successor in favor of his own chosen replacement.
Ahmadinejad justified his hands-on approach toward the national football team, telling the Iranian press, “Unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”
Two months later, in mid-June 2009, massive post-election demonstrations – dubbed the Green Movement, after the campaign color used by defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi – rocked Iran.
Just days after the disputed vote, on June 17, 2009, Team Melli played a World Cup qualifier against South Korea. Six members of the team, including team captain Karimi himself, hit the pitch wearing what appeared to be makeshift green wristbands. For many Iranians, this was a clear display of solidarity with the protesters.
By the second half of the game, the wristbands on some players had disappeared. Speculation emerged as to whether their removal had been demanded by the team’s management at the behest of the Iranian government. The match ended in a 1-1 tie. When the team returned to Iran, those who had sported the wristbands were supposedly forced to retire from the national team for life. The Iranian football federation denied taking such action.
The political platform created by Iranian football could not, however, be denied. An American diplomatic cable, dispatched from Dubai just days before the 2009 election and later released by Wikileaks, explicitly connected Iranian football to the country’s internal politics. The cable noted that “As a result of its enormous domestic fan base, soccer has become highly politicized in Iran,” adding that, according to a “contact closely involved with Iranian professional soccer, the Iranian government is well aware of the potential domestic unrest that can result from a Team Melli loss – or even win.”
The cable further observed that “the Iranian government worries that public unrest over a Team Melli loss could add fire to the increasingly volatile [pre-election] political demonstrations that have paralyzed Tehran in recent nights.”
Just last year, football and politics collided again when the much-maligned and underperforming president of the Iranian football Federation, Ali Kafashian, was reelected to the post despite powerful opposition from both Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
According to James M. Dorsey, who writes the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, “The soccer pitch on Mr. Kafashian’s watch has repeatedly in Tehran and Tabriz…turned into a venue for protest against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government.”
Now, with World Cup qualifying matches again coinciding with a presidential election, past is – as always in Iran – prologue. Will the matches become a pretext for politically-motivated street mobilizations? Will presidential candidates take advantage of the games to advance their own agendas and burnish their images? Will players and fans alike use the football field as a platform for dissent and solidarity? Perhaps most importantly will Iran beat South Korea?
Political preferences or penalties on the pitch aside, all Iranians will be playing for Team Melli this June. And don’t expect anyone to sit on the sidelines.
*Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst and commentator on Middle East affairs and a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. You can follow her @PoliticallyAff on both Twitter and Instagram.