By Freud Bezhan, RFE/RL
As Iran's national soccer team finalizes its squad and tactics for the upcoming World Cup in Russia, President Hassan Rohani is offering his thoughts on how Ramadan, chaste women athletes, and faith among members of Team Melli, as it's known, can work in concert to make the Islamic republic victorious.
Rohani, addressing the national team in Tehran on May 20, said success hinges on faith and fasting during Ramadan, when Muslims do not drink or eat from sunrise to sunset.
"Is the month of Ramadan not all about training?" Rohani said at the gathering, according to the president's official website, referring to the holy month that takes place this year from May 15 to June 13. "You go to the gym to prepare yourself by training and preparing for an important international competition. The month of Ramadan is the gym for all of us. It is all training...It is about patience and resistance."
Rohani also highlighted the importance of prayer and faith if Iran is to succeed at the World Cup, where it has never made it past the group stages. Team Melli will face former champions Spain, Euro 2016 winners Portugal, and Morocco in Group B. The tournament runs from June 14, when Iran opens against Morocco, to July 7.
"When the heart is with God, the soul finds the strength that it needs," Rohani added while addressing players, coaching staff, and government officials. "In football, we count on our ankles, but before the ankles our brains, souls, thoughts, and planning come into play."
Iran will be playing in its fifth World Cup, qualifying for back-to-back tournaments for the first time. The team went winless at the 2014 World Cup, but veteran Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz told ESPN last year that he is targeting the knockout stages and has vowed that Iran will "not go to Russia as tourists."
In a separate address on May 20, Rohani also remarked on the ban on women attending men's sporting events.
Tens of thousands of Iranian citizens and members of the large diaspora in Europe and North America are expected to flock to Russia for the tournament. Team Melli will be playing its group-stage matches in St. Petersburg; Kazan, the capital of Russia's central Republic of Tatarstan; and Saransk, the capital of Russia's Republic of Mordovia.
In recent years, Iran's long-standing position of banning Iranian women from attending football matches has been expanded to other popular sports, including basketball and volleyball, leading to criticism at home and abroad and threatening Iran's ability to host major events. Authorities have at times loosened the rules by allowing a restricted number of Iranian women to attend events, including a FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Asian qualifier in February.
Iranian authorities had said the ban was needed to "protect" women and Islamic norms. The atmosphere in sports stadiums, it has been argued, is inappropriate for Iranian women because of the revealing nature of the athletes' uniforms and the prevalence of crude language at the events.
But Rohani argued that as long as Iranian women wore the hijab and maintained their chastity, it could only be a win-win for the Islamic republic.
"I do not understand why some people have the view that the less women are present in society, on the streets, in the universities, in the hospitals, in the sports arenas, and as teachers, the better the people can protect their faith," Rohani said, according to his official website. "That is strange. Then why has God created women?
Rohani's best scenario is if "our pure women can participate in sports events while observing their hijab, keeping their chastity, and for [us] to win."
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