The Tormented Soul of Iranian Soccer

This World Cup could pose the gravest threat yet to the Islamic regime.

An Iran fan holds a jersey in quiet protest at the November 25 World Cup match between Iran and Wales
An Iran fan holds a jersey in quiet protest at the November 25 World Cup match between Iran and Wales (Ian MacNicol / Getty)

When soccer first appeared in Iranian villages in the 1920s, clerics began their long attempt to stifle the revolution that the game represents. They hated the sport—an import from Great Britain and championed by the shah, it was a symbol of modernity that featured men running around in heretical shorts. Clerics attended local matches for the sake of pelting players with stones.

Throughout modern Iranian history, soccer has been a benchmark in the struggle to define the nation, so it’s not a surprise to see that this iteration of the national team is emerging as a potential symbol of resistance to clerical rule, a reminder of the secular alternative to theocracy.

In Iran, soccer is religion without God—an expression of nationalism devoid of eschatology—and the clerical regime instantly understood it as a dangerous competitor for hearts and minds. Once the mullahs came to power in 1979, they regulated and restricted the sport. They prevented the broadcast of the World Cup until reformist politicians tempered that zeal, and the game resumed its televised place in the Iranian living room in 1994.

Three years later, Iran qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1978. The moment confirmed the clerical intuition about the game. By clinching a tie with Australia to win a place in the tournament, the Iranian team unleashed the sort of bacchanalian display of joy that the clerical regime had always abhorred and deeply feared.

(This is a story that I first reported when I wrote my book How Soccer Explains the World.)

A celebration was planned in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, which then accommodated more than 100,000 fans. Azadi translates as “freedom.” And in an unacknowledged way, that’s what the Iranian team represented. Some of its players were employed by clubs in Europe, avatars of what a healthy relationship with the West might become. The team’s coach was a Brazilian who paced his technical area wearing a necktie—a piece of clothing that the regime discouraged as a totem of Western imperialism.

Victory induces a state of intoxication, even in a country where alcohol is officially verboten. Once exuberance dulls fear and shakes loose the hold of the superego, people will take risks—and might even find themselves tempted to take to the barricades. In Tehran’s wealthier neighborhoods, exuberant women threw off their hijabs and partied in the streets without the legally required head coverings. The morality police who came to shut down the celebrations were persuaded to join them.

The regime hoped to avert worse, which is why it delayed the homecoming of the triumphant team, forcing them to wait several days in the United Arab Emirates. A cooling-off period, when it hoped that the public’s emotions would ebb and attention would refocus on the quotidian.

One of the dangerous characteristics of soccer is that women like it too. In 1987, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a ruling that permitted them to watch the sport in the privacy of their homes, yet forbade them from attending games in stadiums. But with Iran’s qualification for the World Cup, women clamored to join the celebration at the Azadi. According to the anthropologist Christian Bromberger, women lined up outside the gates shouting, “Aren’t we part of this nation? We want to celebrate too. We aren’t ants.” As women streamed into the stadium, police had no choice but to look the other way.

In the end, the moment passed, emotions subsided, and complaints with the regime were shoved back into the harmless realm of the domestic.

This World Cup poses a potentially far graver threat to the Islamic regime than the events of 25 years ago. Back then, Iranian protesters felt reasons for optimism; a newly elected reformist president promised greater tolerance. (When he campaigned, he surrounded himself with soccer players. His reactionary opponent contrasted himself by campaigning with wrestlers.)

Now the raging protests in Iran—not just in Tehran but across the country—are born out of a sense of desperation, a sense that existence can’t possibly deteriorate further, which justifies the risks of absorbing blows from police truncheons, or worse. This unrest is the essential context every time Iran steps onto the field.

Some critics of the regime have also been critics of the team. They have argued that the team can’t help but bolster the image of the Islamic regime at a moment when it is most vulnerable. Images of players sharing a laugh on the training pitch were denounced as frivolous and disrespectful of the suffering back home. Dissidents wanted FIFA to ban the Iranian team from the tournament, just as it did Russia.

To surmise the dynamics in Iran’s locker room would be impossible, but it’s pretty clear that these criticisms of the team have propelled it to take a series of stands at great personal risk. In a friendly match in September, months before the World Cup, the team walked onto the field in black warm-up jackets that obscured their uniform’s national crest; one of the team’s stars declined to celebrate the goal he scored.

During their first match in Qatar, they stood stone-faced as the Iranian anthem played in the stadium. Their quiet shouted loudly at the regime. (In the next match, they were apparently compelled to sing the words, which they did half-heartedly.) These weren’t announced stances of defiance, but it was hard not to glean their intent.

With all the emotions stirred by the World Cup, gestures of defiance could ricochet across Iran. Bravery in the streets inspired the bravery of players, which could, in turn, further embolden the protesters at home. At the tournament, fans have brought flags inscribed with the words “Women, life, freedom.” That is, in fact, the potential of Iran’s presence at this World Cup; it can call attention to an alternative form of patriotism—liberal, secular, long simmering—that’s embedded in the history of the Iranian game. May it win the competition that truly matters.