Deemed as a ‘fanatical football nation’, football is undoubtedly an embedded part of Iranian culture. A game where the people’s and the government’s connection with it is more complex than a player-spectator relationship. When Iran’s national team – Team Melli – are playing, Iranians from all walks of life come together to watch and support the team.
Iran, a country of grave inequalities between the rich and poor, tensions and divisive behaviours between the supporters of regional teams and partitions between supporters of the Islamic regime and the opponents, somehow all seem to become united with national pride allowing green, white and red to decorate the streets. However, gatherings to watch these matches are organised privately at a fear of governmental reactions. Often security forces apprehend or disperse large groups of mixed-gender crowds. This year they have gone a step farther by banning cafes from showing the matches for the World Cup, according to Afkar News . This came after Iranian authorities announced that mixed-gender cinemas would not be allowed to show World Cup matches. Although, the restaurants’ union has announced that they will defy the ruling and screen the games, claiming that the priority is thus “crowd control”.
The passion and zeal for football is not lost on the Iranian women. In Iran women are some of the more avid supporters, yet their options in expressing this passion are even more regulated. Women have been banned from entering stadiums since the revolution in 1979, as the Iranian authorities deem the atmosphere in football stadiums unsuitable. A parody of this was made in Jafar Panahi’s Offside, based on Iranian girls disguising themselves as men to watch a World Cup qualifying match. The carefully crafted comedy subtly touches on the inequalities Iranian women face on a daily basis. Panahi, the dissident film maker, is currently under house arrest and is prohibited from making films for 20 years due to what the Iranian courts have deemed as his “propaganda against the Iranian government”.
Although football, especially on an international level, is a time for jubilation for Iranians, where most of their worries and troubles can be subdued by national pride, it is still a highly political affair. The difficulties faced by the Team Melli in attempt to qualify for the World Cup highlight the deeply political nature of the game.
Football has also been used as a softening tool allowing the Iranian authorities to win favours with the football loving nation. For example, in 1998 when Iran beat Australia in the World Cup qualifier, the security forces did not move to control the crowds. David Goldblatt recounts: “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… When the national team returned to the city, 5,000 women… stormed the Azadi stadium to honour the players.” A tactical token of freedom granted to raise national morale. A similar situation ensued after the US win in 1998 (deemed one of the most politically charged matches in a World Cup history). This tolerance of “unlawful” behaviour did not last for long; the 2001 Iran’s victory over Iraq led to tens of thousands of youths celebrating in Tehran only to be dispersed by tear gas and police baton charges.
Recently the softer approach has returned. During the nuclear talks the Rouhani administration has been desperately attempting to change Iran’s image and raise its reputation internationally. Although social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been banned in Iran, we saw the verification of the Team Melli player’s individual Twitter accounts. The irony that punctuates Iranian international relations persists. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif also went on to verify his twitter account. These moves to show a more modern vision of Iran and grant insight to Iran’s international relations are heavily monitored still. The irony is not lost on the Iranian people either who see that only a selected few have access to social networking sites – adding insult to injury.
Football – like literature, art and film – has also been used as an avenue for Iranians to express some of their frustrations at the regime. In 2009 in the World Cup qualifier six players who took to the field wearing wristbands in the colour of the defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, reminiscent of the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. In retaliation the Iranian authorities took revenge by imposing life bans on players who sported green wristbands – a peaceful gesture that acutely embarrassed Iranian officials – including bans on giving interviews.
More aggressive football-related crackdowns give rise to concern. In 2010 football journalist Abdollah Sadoughi was arrested after publishing a poster supporting the Traktor Sazi football team. Held without charge at Tabriz prison he went on hunger strike in protest at what he considered to be a baseless detention. Clearly a prisoner of conscience, held for peacefully expressing his views. The authorities have accused him of acts “against national security” including supporting “Pan-Turkism” for publishing posters.
It is unfortunate that this game has become a tinderbox for further repression of the Iranian people. Although governmental restrictions and clampdowns dominate all aspects of life in Iran, Iranians are keen to maintain their morale for the games. The joke currently goes that if Iran wins the World Cup this year, a revolution against the regime may commence.
Iran’s first game in the Cup against Nigeria starts tonight. Adrenaline, excitement and patriotic passions are running high. However, it also brings out socio-economic tensions in the country. In this period where spirits are soaring, we must not let it overshadow the deep-seated human rights conflicts that continue to exist. Regardless of how Team Melli do in the games we wish these players, which have worked against accumulating odds, the best of luck in the political marathon that is football.