Men, women celebrate team’s wins together at street parties

Soccer has spurred many changes over the past year in Iran, especially as Iranians’ passion for the long-beloved sport intertwines with its sometimes mercurial politics. The sport’s ability to influence policy was obvious last June when Iran played Bahrain to qualify for the World Cup. Police announced that they would allow people to celebrate in the streets if the Iranian team won. For an Islamic state like Iran, which does not allow the joint participation of men and women in secular events, the move was seen as a compromise between the religious leadership and young, soccer-mad Iranians. On the day of the match, Tehran resembled a ghost town. Most of the 70 million residents of Iran were glued to their television sets, watching the game. During the interval and at the game’s end, soft-rock and techno music – generally frowned upon as corrupting Western cultural imports – was broadcast. For many young Iranians watching the game, the mixture of Western music accompanying slow camera panning shots across the giant posters of the Islamic Republic’s founding father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and its current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that tower above Tehran’s massive Azadi stadium were too surreal for words. They burst into shocked laughter. «I never thought I’d live to see this,» said Sahand Sammadian, a 27-year-old filmmaker whose father is a distinguished photographer who documented the bloody battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war. Immediately after the final whistle, Tehran and every other city and village around Iran were paralyzed as millions of fans poured into the streets to rejoice at the great victory. In the capital’s northern suburbs, thousands of cars blocked the stately Vali Asr boulevard, blaring out music and chants. The crowds jamming the pavements contained almost as many ecstatic women as men. Many of them danced in public, a punishable offense under the Islamic Republic. But if public morality Bassij militias were out that night, they did not even attempt to enforce the modesty laws. Had they tried to stop the partying, they would have incurred the wrath of the people and whipped up the crowd into an anti-government frenzy. Instead, policemen stood by and watched the extraordinary scenes of celebration. It was only the second time in the 26 years since the Islamic Republic was founded in Iran that crowds surged out into its usually monochrome public places to dance and make merry. The first time was in 1997, when Iran qualified for the second time in its history for the World Cup. That first celebration happened the same year as the election of reformist President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami, who had promised to move Iran from the confrontational politics spurred by the Ayatollah Khomeini to more conciliatory positions with the West. During the 1997 celebration of the World Cup qualification, a social taboo was broken and it underscored the growing relationship between soccer and politics. When the team returned from Australia, Iranian women forced their way into Azadi stadium to fete them. There, they cheered alongside men for the first time since the revolution as the players descended onto the pitch from a helicopter as true returning conquerors. Even though their government is currently under intense international pressure, Iranians are making travel plans to Germany to see their national team compete. Tourist offices in Tehran have already sold out of packages for Iran’s three group games. For those not among the lucky few spending up to $10,000 to go to Germany this month, the games will be broadcast on giant video screens in three of Tehran’s central squares. Despite this clear enthusiasm for the national team, Iran won’t have an easy time in Germany. Aside from having to battle accomplished football teams such as Portugal, Angola and Mexico on the field, they face sustained pressure outside the stadium as well. Several advocacy groups in Germany and the European Union have said the Iranian team should be banned from the World Cup to punish Iran’s political intransigence, particularly on its controversial nuclear energy program. And while that is unlikely to happen, Germany could well ban one of Iran’s biggest soccer fans, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from traveling there. German diplomats in Tehran say privately that their nightmare scenario is for Iran to get to the World Cup final – an event that would almost dictate the presence of its controversial head of state. (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.

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