Iranian flags were hung in the stands and many of the fans were singing patriotic Iranian songs. But at the four friendly exhibition games the Iranian men’s volleyball team played last month, there was something very different happening.
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In a summer that included appearances by its national soccer and basketball sides at world championships, the Iranian volleyball team succeeded in being the national spearhead – in sporting and diplomatic terms. That’s how, for the first time in its history, the team from the Islamic Republic of Iran visited the United States to play Team U.S.A.
The games were held in southern California for a good reason: there are many Iranian immigrants living there. It seems that the timing was also not just a complete coincidence, coming at the height of nuclear disarmament talks (between the P5+1 and Iran) and as the relations between Iran and the West are perhaps starting to thaw. Twenty-nine Iranian team members and staff did not just enjoy the classic American tourist trail – the Universal Studios tour, Hollywood, Santa Monica, shopping – they also received a diplomatic welcome, meeting with U.S. Department of State officials.
Greg Sullivan, the senior adviser for strategic communications on Iran in the Department of State, told Al-Monitor, “We see [this visit] as an incredible opportunity to promote goodwill and understanding between the Iranian and American people.” He said it was part of the ongoing efforts to promote exchanges between the countries in sports, arts, education and culture.
A cooperative agreement was signed between the two nations’ volleyball federations to exchange information and ideas, as well as to advance young players. The Americans are also planning to send a team to Iran next year.
Using sport as a means of diplomacy is nothing new. American volleyball was used in this way with Cuba, and there is, of course, the “Ping-Pong diplomacy” with China in the 1970s. Last year, the Iranian wrestling team was invited to the United States for the first time in a decade, as part of a successful, coordinated battle to keep wrestling as an Olympic sport.
For the U.S. volleyball team, last month’s exhibition games also had a sporting purpose. “It’s very important, as they are becoming a world class volleyball team, that we learn how to play against them and learn their system,” said Sean Rooney, the captain of Team U.S.A.
Team U.S.A. won three of the four games and maybe learned something, but it didn’t help when the real pressure was on in the men’s world championships currently being held in Poland. Iran beat Italy, the United States, Belgium and Puerto Rico to finish in the difficult fourth group with a 4 - 1 record, and advanced to the second round – and then advanced to the third round, too, where it lost 3-0 to Germany in its first game. The final round starts tomorrow. At a time when some Iranian sports teams are facing major challenges, Iranian volleyball is thriving at the highest international level.
A reasonable showing in Brazil, despite everything
Soccer, which has overtaken wrestling as the country’s favorite sport, was hurt severely by the international sanctions against Iran. The extreme drop in the value of the local currency made it hard for sports clubs to pay foreign players – who receive their salaries in dollars (1 Iranian Rial is currently worth $0.000038) – and many left. Iranian officials who officiated games outside the country found it difficult to get paid by the Asian Football Confederation. And it was impossible to find international sponsors during the period of sanctions.
The damage also hit the national team hard, and its preparations for the World Cup in Brazil. The Iranian training camp planned for Portugal, including an exhibition match against Ghana, was canceled because of a lack of resources. An alternative training camp turned into a farce when only 11 players showed up, because of a conflict with the Asian Champions League. It was also a problem to find a strong-enough team to play an exhibition match against.
And then there was the cheap kit, with reports that the president of the Iranian soccer federation ordered his players not to change shirts at the end of the games and to wash them only in cold water, otherwise they would shrink. Team captain Javad Nekounam said that not a single one of the promises the team received was met, and then held the authorities responsible for the results, not the players. The team’s Portuguese head coach, Carlos Queiroz – whose reported $2 million annual salary was certainly a heavy burden on the team’s limited budget – declared that anyone who thought the Iranian team could succeed at the World Cup with only 14 days’ training was crazy.
In the end, Iran’s performance in Brazil was reasonable. Iranian President Hassan Rohani even published a picture of himself on Twitter wearing the team shirt – a relatively mild act compared to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who worked hard to attribute the successes of the team to himself. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and other senior officials were photographed watching the games during breaks in the nuclear talks. The World Cup team was open with the large media presence in Brazil, and an Iranian journalist, Kamran Ahmadpour, told the Telegraph that the Iranian media was free to criticize the team, though he described the private lives of the players as a “red line.”
Iran is still Iran
But Iran is still Iran. The local soccer league is popular and has games that draw over 100,000 fans, but not a single woman – they are banned from attending. That is why the public screening of World Cup games was also banned back home.
A few months ago, when the Brazilian and Italian volleyball teams were hosted in Tehran, Iranian female spectators and journalists were banned from the matches, and removed from the arena. The police said the presence of men and women together at such events “violates the public interest.” Women and female journalists who protested the ban outside the stadium said they were detained and even arrested. Saba Sherdoost, an Iranian reporter who was one of the women turned away from the stadium, was quoted as saying that the volleyball federation is “obligated to let women enter the stadium and cannot deny women this right. This prohibition is not only discriminatory but also a lawless act, since many cars full of Brazilian women were allowed to enter the stadium and only Iranian women were kept out.” At the games in California, by the way, many of the spectators were immigrant Iranian women.
On the other hand, if you are an American sportsman visiting Iran, it seems you will be welcomed with open arms. The U.S. wrestling team has visited regularly since 1998, after a 19-year hiatus following the Iranian revolution. Wrestler Jordan Burroughs, an Olympic gold medalist and world champion, said after competing in Iran last year, “I received more attention there than I receive on my home soil. It was kind of like being Justin Bieber with all the attention that I was getting. It was nuts.”
Greco-Roman wrestler Robby Smith, who competed in this year’s World Cup event in Iran, told Al-Monitor that the reception afforded him by Iranian fans was “the most incredible I’ve ever experienced.” He said the Iranian crowd chanted “U.S.A., U.S.A.” In the street, people time after time asked him to have their pictures taken with him, and he felt like “one of the Beatles.” The two countries’ wrestling federations have agreed on mutual visits for young wrestlers.
American basketball players also reported the excitement among Iranian fans to see them. Garth Joseph, who played in the Iranian Super League from 2005 to 2009, tells how he was nicknamed “The Ambassador” in the local media. “When you play in different countries, you lose your nationality, your color, your race,” Joseph said to the Knight Ridder News Service. “You’re just a basketball star. It lets you talk to people about your values and your culture without them attacking you right away.” But he also told of a game at a team sponsored by Iran’s Defense Ministry where soldiers shouted, “Nuclear energy is our absolute right!”
This summer, the Iranian basketball team – the Asian champion in three of the last four tournaments – went to the World Cup in Spain. The Iranians won only a single game, beating Egypt in a tough division that included Spain, France, Brazil and Serbia. It placed 20th of the 24 sides.
Volleyball is a different story, though, and has been since 2011 when Argentinian Julio Velasco was appointed head coach. The goal was not only to reach the Olympics for the first time, but also to win a medal at the 2016 tournament in Rio de Janeiro. In the meantime, Iran has twice won the Asian championships and reached the highest levels of international play. Velasco returned to Argentina earlier this year, but his replacement – Slobodan Kovac from Serbia – has continued the upward trend.
Last year Iran made the World League for the first time, and this year it finished fourth. Big wins have become quite the norm. Captain Saeid Marouf was chosen as the best passer this year, and Amir Ghafour was the league’s highest scorer. Team member Mohammad Mousavi said the team has gained a lot of confidence over the past year. However, Marouf traces the transformation back even further. “It all started in 2007 when we won the gold medal at the FIVB Youth World Championship in Mexico,” he told reporters at the world championships this week. “So volleyball is really important in Iran.”
Its progress can also be seen in the local Iranian leagues. Many games are played in front of full houses, with some even shown outside the stadium on giant screens for those who can’t get seats. Kovac told AFP that he’s so well-known in Iran, he has a hard time going out for coffee since everyone comes up to him. “But to improve further, Iran’s players must gain international experience.”