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Success for squad in Germany may spur social change, renew unity

Such concerns underline the massive change that has transpired since the 1980s, when Iran was isolated from the world as it engaged in a drawn-out war with Iraq. The country largely disappeared from the international soccer scene, not even playing World Cup qualifying games for a time. The seclusion ended in 1997, when, after a 17-game soccer odyssey, the country headed to the 1998 tournament by beating Australia in the last minutes of the last qualifier. It was a huge achievement hailed as the beginning of a new epoch for the embattled country. But soccer had made its mark in the country much earlier. On February 16, 1990, barely a year after Iran signed the truce with Iraq that ended their eight-year-long war, a spontaneous riot erupted against the regime after the cancellation of a soccer match in Tehran’s Amjadieh stadium. Football and politics make a highly potent mixture everywhere but particularly in Iran, where football stadiums are one of the few public places, along with universities, where large crowds congregate. The game has been politicized here ever since the immediate pre-revolutionary period when those disaffected with the shah rallied around the Persepolis team, whose Marxist, anti-monarchical roots implied criticism of the status quo. Supporters of the Pahlavi throne rooted for Taj, which mean crows. In order to avoid the shah’s grim fate, Taj shed its royalist credentials and changed its name to Esteghlal (independence), following the monarch’s deposition by Khomeini’s supporters in 1979. Often in the 1990s, big games were followed by massive protests against the government. In October 2001, tensions rose against the Shi’ite theocracy after the United Arab Emirates defeated Iran 3-1. At least 2,000 young people were arrested in the following two weeks and one newspaper wrote that «girls threw off their [required] headscarves and couples danced in the streets in violation of Islamic law.» Making matters worse were persistent rumors that Iran threw the game against the UAE on order of the mullahs. But President Khatami’s election and his commitment to returning Iran to the international community had started a non-reversible trend that was mirrored in the country’s on-field exploits. When women flooded the stadium in Azadi after the team returned from their victorious World Cup qualifying match in Australia in 1998, the issue of lifting the ban on women in stadiums began to be seriously discussed. Such talk has occurred in contravention of a religiously derived ruling banning women from stadiums because it was not Islamically acceptable for women to watch half-dressed men exerting themselves. Still, female soccer fans pushed their way past guards to get into the stadium again last June, when Iran defeated Bahrain again to qualify again for this month’s World Cup competition. Last year, the Madhi Dadras team allowed women to watch one game, arguing that its players are well-behaved and do not curse, another standard excuse used by clerics to enforce the ban. The club manager also thought the presence of women improved his players’ morale, a pro-soccer sentiment which also helped the women get into the stadium. Soccer remains one of the great unifying factors in Iran today alongside Islam, nationalism and the country’s nuclear energy program. A good result for the national team in the World Cup this month could trigger great social changes for the country and a renewed sense of national unity. At a time of the stiffest international pressure on Iran since the first years of the Islamic revolution, soccer could end up being the unlikely redeemer. The expectant crowds watching the team’s progress in Tehran this summer will certainly be hoping so. (1) A version of this article first appeared in the June 4 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement. Iason Athanasiadis is a British-Greek journalist and photographer who lives in Tehran.