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Soccer and the Iranian Predicament

An exclusive excerpt from Afshin Molavi's newly released and updated paperback "The Soul of Iran"

(Published in hardback under the title Persian Pilgrimages)


Frank Foer of the New Republic wrote a fine book, How Soccer Explains the World. In it, he referred to Iran's "football revolution," the moment in 1997 when some 5,000 Iranian women defied a ban on entering the stadium, and literally stormed the gates to join 120,000 screaming men in celebration of Iran's just-returned soccer stars, who had qualified for the World Cup. Foer sensed an important marker in Iranian history, one that led to a series of more soccer-related political demonstrations over the next few years.


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When Iran defeated the United States in a World Cup soccer match in 1998, the country exploded in celebration and the Islamic Republic found itself in a bind. "The Great Satan" had been defeated, but the popular celebrations on that night challenged hard-line government orthodoxy. Women danced with men in public, people threw firecrackers at the police, and many chanted slogans against regime hard-liners.


Often after big matches, young men-unemployed and angry-vandalize government property while chanting crude slogans about the opposing team and, occasionally, their own leaders. In 2001, a few thousand Iranians, incensed by rumors that the team purposefully lost a key World Cup qualifying game by government order, clashed with police while chanting antigovernment slogans. Though the rumor-fueled by Diaspora television stations-is unlikely to be true, the national team displayed a striking inability to beat lesser teams during the qualifying stretch and failed to make the 2002 Cup.


In a sense, the team's soccer malaise mirrored the country's political malaise, as hard-liners tightened their grip on power and the country's reformists took a beating without much of a fight.


In October 2004, I decided to head for Azadi (Freedom) Stadium to watch the Iran-Germany exhibition match. That night, I saw not so much a "football revolution", but an array of experiences that provided a metaphor for the contemporary Iranian predicament, and clues to the country's future.


I went to the stadium with my friend Hossein, a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, his brother Hassan and two of his sons, and Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian-American Tehran-based analyst with the International Crisis Group who is, in my estimation, the best of a new generation of Iran analysts because he combines analytic rigor with a big heart.


We met at Hassan's small grocery shop and piled into his car. Hassan, unlike Hossein, chose not to fight in the war with Iraq. While Hossein displays a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini in his modest home, Hassan prefers the late Shah. Hassan originally cheered the revolution, but he has grown weary of Iran's clerical rulers and openly ridicules them in family gatherings - a source of tension between the two brothers. He also watches Persian-language satellite television programs from Los Angeles, and sings the praises of the late Shah. "God rest his soul," he often tells me, as Hossein looks on with barely concealed disgust. Whenever I see Hassan, he regales me with profanity-laced jokes.


Hassan has done well for himself. He co-owns a small grocery, invests in real estate, and dabbles in manufacturing. Occasionally, he even travels to Germany to attend trade shows and, as he says, "drink my whiskey in peace."


These two brothers, hailing from the same religious working-class background, reflect the myriad ways the revolution has shaped what Khomeini called the mostazafin (oppressed masses). Hassan once told me, "I grew up very religious. When I was a kid, my father always told me to say hello to the local mullah. Today, I steer my kids away from them." Hossein, to whom I was closer, would often take me aside after our meetings with Hassan and say: "Don't listen to him. He has lost his way."


On the drive to the stadium, Hassan cursed and joked and laughed his way through the chaotic traffic. Young men leaned out of car windows blowing on horns and chanting "Iran! Iran! Iran!"


We parked in a distant lot, and joined the waves of Iranian men-mostly young-excitedly marching toward the stadium. At the entrance to the stadium, we joined the melee of chaotic pushing and shoving with no line in sight. We squirmed our way toward the front, holding Hassan's young sons' hands tightly, elbowing people in the process, finally making it inside the stadium grounds.


Once inside, several doors to the arena were blocked by police. Young men swarmed the grounds, laughing and yelling and cursing and banging on drums and blowing on horns.

"What the hell is going on here?" someone screamed. "Why won't they let us in?"


Suddenly, a rumor spread that the east gate was opening. Hundreds of young men sprinted east, banging on drums, some with flags draped on their backs like superheroes.


Hossein instructed us to stay in line. A uniformed security officer approached our gates. A group of young men in beards-members of the Basijis-sauntered to the front of the line, shook hands with the officers, and passed through the gate. The crowd roared its disapproval with a few choice epithets aimed at the Basijis and their mothers. Hossein, a Basiji himself, frowned his disapproval. I wasn't sure if he was upset with the insults or the actions of his colleagues.


Finally, the gates flew open and we stampeded into the stadium, still clutching the boys by the hands. Wrestling our way into a few empty seats, we sat down, an hour before kickoff, near the front rows, a crisp green soccer field before us and a hundred thousand excited (mostly young) Iranians around us.


Large loudspeakers on the grass blasted carefully mixed government-approved techno music. The crowd swayed to the beat. A small group near us banged on drums. I looked around to see if I could spot German women in the VIP sections-foreign women are allowed prescreened entry to the stadium.


When Karim turned to take pictures, young men swarmed around us, flashing the V sign. As he snapped photos, the techno music stopped, and the loudspeaker recited verses from the Quran. Most people chatted and ignored it, as Iranians often do when presented with "official Islam." The music roared back on, and the crowd cheered.


Shortly before the game began, an unctuous sounding voice urged the crowd to stand for "the national anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran."


Most Iranians I know prefer the prerevolution anthem suffused with nationalist themes. Even Hossein says he likes the prerevolution one better. For many years, the anthem was banned, but on this day, in the soccer stadium, a truncated version of it (without lyrics) was played after the Islamic Republic anthem. The crowd's reaction was more deferential to this anthem, but not overly excited either.


A wandering vendor sold ice cream bars. Another, a gaptoothed elderly man with wizened skin, offered hot tea.


When the German team trotted onto the field, the Iranian fans gave them a rousing ovation. Hassan turned to me, and said, "If this was an Arab team, you would have heard some great insults, but we respect the Germans."


As the Iranian team made their way to the field, a deafening roar rocked the stadium. Flags waved. Feet stomped. Arms raised.


All of the team's players were clean-shaven. Nearly all of the team's officials wore beards. In a sense, the razor blade gave the team a populist air. They are one of "us," Iranians could feel, not one of "them," the government-types with their Nehru-collar shirts and close-cropped beards. Several of the players had even become teen heartthrobs, with the long hair and floppy bangs of pop singers.


On the stadium periphery, I saw advertisements for Samsung, Hyundai, and Emirates airlines-all major international companies that prize the Iranian market , signs that Iranian trade relations are growing, despite U. S. sanctions.


An announcer spoke throughout the warm-ups, urging the crowd to welcome the German team (which they already had done) and cheer loudly for "the national team of the Islamic Republic of Iran," elongating the words "Jomhurieyeh-e-Eslami- e- Iran" in that annoying, contrived stadium announcer voice heard around the world. Every time the crowd chanted, they would simply cry "Iran!" They never bothered to incorporate the "Islamic Republic" part in any of their ingenious chants.



The German team deflated the crowd early with a quick goal, but the Iranian squad held its own, narrowly missing two prime goal opportunities. At halftime, with Iran down 1-0, the chairman of the German football federation walked onto the field accompanied by several smiling, bearded officials of the Islamic Republic. He presented a check to the mayor of Bam to help that earthquake-devastated city with reconstruction.


Several people around me cracked jokes. "That will help the mayor pay for his new Benz." (The Bam earthquake relief has been riddled with government corruption.)


After the ceremony, a pop singer appeared, introduced by the announcer in English as "one of the pop music people of the Islamic Republic of Iran." His mild pop failed to excite the crowd, who mostly talked and continued banging on drums and waving flags and chanting "Eee-ran!"


In the second half, the team once again missed several scoring opportunities, ultimately losing 2-0. A few minutes before the game ended, we made our way to the exits amid more drum banging and flag waving.


Once we located our car in the vast parking lot, we were told to pay a fee, which sparked a heated exchange between Hassan and the attendant. "You are killing us with your fees!" he said "Don't the mullahs have enough money!" He muttered a few more insults under his breath, involving mullahs and female body parts.


Snaking through the traffic, young men on motorbikes continued to wave the Iranian flag. Chants of "Iran! Iran! Iran!" broke out spontaneously. The crowd remained of good cheer. After all, the match had no bearing on Iran's World Cup status.


In March 2005, after a 2-1 victory over Japan that catapulted Iran into first place in the Asian qualifiers, fans went on a joyful rampage, damaging some eighty buses and reportedly chanting anti-regime slogans. On this night, however, the most dramatic moments came as Hassan darted his car in and out of the traffic and pedestrians and motorbikes that all spilled onto the same road.


Later that night, I reflected on my night at the soccer stadium, which, I thought, provided a metaphor for the contemporary Iranian predicament. I saw frustrated young men and official mismanagement. I saw raw nationalism and barely concealed contempt for government officials. I saw the government's schizophrenia- officially prescribed techno music, a halftime pop music concert, and Quranic verses interspersed throughout. I also saw small attempts by government to reclaim its nationalist credentials (the playing of the prerevolution anthem) and clumsy attempts to reach out to youth: again, the pop star.


The traffic was bad, the stadium was creaking, and the whole affair had a Third World air of chaos to it, but, at the end of the day, most people made it home safely that night. There were no riots, no serious injuries. Somehow, it all worked, though egos were bruised and minor injuries were sustained.


Still, the threat of disorder lurked in the air. Twenty-six years after the revolution, the Islamic Republic creaks along despite its many faults, bruising its people along the way, even as the threat of disorder remains in the background. This begs the question: Will the "football revolution"-the model of determined Iranians demanding their rights by storming the gates, as in 1997-be emulated on a larger scale, or will Iran look something more like my night at the stadium: chaotic and badly managed, with the threat of disorder in the air, but, ultimately, the state managing to maintain control through a sophisticated system of carrots and sticks?


The answer probably lies somewhere in between. As I left the stadium that night, I could only hope that one day in the not-too-distant future the soccer stadium known as Azadi (Freedom) will truly deserve its name.


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... Payvand News - 9/26/05 ... --

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