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Sports | The Lions of Persia


12 Jun 2012 10:06Comments

Politics on the pitch.

[ comment ] FIFA administers six continental football confederations. One of them, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), in turn, directs each Asian football federation, such as the Iranian Football Federation (IFF). Each continental confederation is tasked with arranging the qualification games for FIFA's international tournaments, the most prestigious of which is the World Cup held every four years. The next one, in 2014, will be hosted by Brazil, followed by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Of 46 member federations in the AFC, merely four qualify for the World Cup. Direct qualification is awarded to the first and second place teams in Group A and B of the final qualifying round (there are four stages of qualification). A fifth team takes part in a two-leg playoff with a team from another continental confederation. For example, in qualification for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Bahrain came in third in its group and, since it had more points than the third placed team in the other group, it squared off against New Zealand of the Oceana Football Confederation. New Zealand won and went on to South Africa.

Today in the AFC, the two final qualifying groups are set, and each group has played one round of games. Iran, or Team Melli, is grouped with South Korea, Qatar, Uzbekistan, and Lebanon. Team Melli beat Uzbekistan in their first game in Tashkent, by a score of 1-0. In the first half, Uzbekistan outperformed Iran, and was unlucky not to go ahead. However, as the match stood at 0-0 in the 94th minute, veteran Iranian playmaker Andranik Teymourian, who once played with Bolton Wanderers in the English Premier League, put Karim Ansarifard, a promising young striker, through on the right side of the field. Ansarifard squared the ball into the path of another promising talent, Mohammad Reza Khalatbari, who in turn slipped the ball past Uzbekistan's goalkeeper. Carlos Quiroz, the Team Melli coach, said in an interview with the Tehran Times, "To be the winner is more important than playing beautiful without a victory." This reaction was shared with millions of Iranians who viewed their team kick off their final stage of qualifying that they hope will culminate in passage to the 2014 World Cup.

In general, Team Melli has performed poorly since 2006, when it last qualified for the World Cup in Germany. Since then, several prominent players such as Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia, and Vahid Hashemian have left the squad, but others like Javad Nekounam, who plays for Spanish club team Ossasuna, and Ali Karimi, a former Bayern Munich and Schalke player in Germany, still endure. Team Melli has had four different coaches since 2006, including former striker Ali Daei and Iranian American Afshin Ghotbi. It is currently managed now by the Portuguese coach Carlos Quiroz, former assistant coach to Sir Alex Ferguson with Manchester United. Under Quiroz, Iran has played 14 games, winning nine, drawing four, and losing only to Albania in a recent friendly match. Tuesday night, Quiroz leads his team onto the field in the 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium in Tehran to face Qatar.

SLbanners.jpgThose who choose to tune in on Tuesday can expect a show of politics along with their soccer. From the oversized portraits of ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei glaring down at the fans, to pro-government chants by the Basij in attendance, and perhaps anti-Qatari political signs, shirts, and chants. Pro-government fans, for example, wore T-shirts portraying the Pearl Roundabout monument in Bahrain that was torn down by the government during protests there in 2011. The government in Iran has been a loud critic of the Bahraini monarchy, and the Bahraini monarchy has charged Iran of interference in its domestic matters. Political and religious emotion commonly finds its way into soccer stadiums throughout the world, but in Iran it is more entrenched within wider sociopolitical issues, and is orchestrated, intentionally, by the government.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, soccer has been significantly politicized by the government that perceives the sports popularity amongst the people as a potential tool of oppression. Fans set very high standards for Team Melli, and, since the Revolution, have blamed the team's under-performance on the government's calculated neglect for the sport. One hundred thousand jubilant fans waving flags in the stadium is ordinarily welcomed in many societies, but not by a regime such as the Islamic Republic's.

The Islamic Republic dreads the growth and development of Iranian soccer. It alarmingly forecasts an increase in foreign players and coaches in its domestic league, the Persian Gulf Cup, and the attention of international media. As a result, the government has thwarted efforts at privatizing clubs, and toughened its control over them, by offering substantial subsidies for those that remain public. Consequently, all of the teams in Iran's premier division are government owned. Also, clubs are directed by members of the Basij, who don't care less so much about sports as they do about keeping an eye on the length of players' hair and reporting "immoral" behavior. Talented Iranians though, not only in athletics, are accustomed to the government acting as an obstacle instead of fostering, and sponsoring their success.

Why the government dreads the beautiful game became evident in 2009, after the post-election protests, when Team Melli players, who are extremely popular, wore green armbands in solidarity with protestors during a game against South Korea in Seoul. During half time in that game, government officials dictated that the players must remove the green armbands.

Soccer has been caught in the fractioning domestic political environment in Iran on two other significant occasions. First, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad endeavored to take control of a string of ministries recently, one was the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport for which the president of the Iranian Football Federation, Ali Kafashian, works. Kafashian was sacked by Ahmadinejad, but reinstated by Supreme Leader Khamenei. Then, Ahmadinejad tried to lift the ban on women attending matches at the stadium, but was publicly rebuked by Khamenei.

Team Melli remains one of Asia's soccer powerhouses, a testament to the perseverance of multiple generations of Iranian players, and also to the low quality of its competition on the Asian continent these days. It is a favorite to beat Qatar and to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Whatever the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran, things continue to look promising for Team Melli with Quiroz and the current crop of Iranian players.

Photos: Above, archive. Homepage: members of national team practicing before Qatar game.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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