In June 1998, almost 20 years after the Iranian Revolution had toppled the pro-West shah, the United States and Iran met on a soccer field in Lyon, in what has been described as the most politically charged game in World Cup history.
The game was so charged that Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, stayed up well past his bedtime to watch his nation defeat the “Great Satan” 2-1, according to Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute and author of “The Battle of the Ayatollahs in Iran: The United States, Foreign Policy, and Political Rivalry since 1979.”
Vatanka, whose father played for Iran’s national team in the 1960s, says Khamenei later invited the scorer of the first goal, Hamid Estili, to his residence and kissed him on the forehead.
“Iran is soccer-mad and the country comes to a standstill during the World Cup,” Vatanka explains. “In 1998, Bill Clinton was in his second term as U.S. president and Mohammad Khatami had recently been elected president of Iran. There was a sense of optimism that soccer could result in sports diplomacy – but it didn’t happen.”
On November 29, Iran and the United States will meet once more, in a World Cup game in Qatar that is set to be no less contentious than 1998 with both countries locked in a stalemate over negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. The stakes could be high on the pitch, as well, as the teams will be clashing in a final group stage game that could amount to a winner-takes-all scenario (in a group that also features England and Wales).
Haaretz spoke to former Iranian athletes and experts about the possibility of sports diplomacy in the upcoming World Cup, as well as perceptions of soccer and sports in general.
It’s no secret that sports and politics are inextricably linked in Iran. Just last month, a soccer friendly between Canada and Iran was canceled following opposition from the Canadian government and the families of victims of the Ukrainian passenger plane shot down over Tehran by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in January 2020. In a statement explaining the decision, governing body Canada Soccer said the game had been canceled because “the untenable geopolitical situation of hosting Iran became significantly divisive.”
Political flash point
Soccer is by far the most watched and played sport in Iran. “Team Melli” (“National Team” in Persian) is currently Asia’s highest-placed team in the world rankings, sitting at No. 23. Despite the game’s widespread popularity, it is reported to be heavily politicized and regulated by the Revolutionary Guard.
Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, was a spectator when Iran beat the United States in Lyon 24 years ago. She says soccer has become a political flash point for social and political issues, including women’s rights. “The Iranian government is wary of soccer’s mass popularity due to the large crowds it attracts, which have sometimes spilled over into political protest,” she notes.
Dr. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Education at Missouri University of Science and Technology, describes soccer as a secular religion in Iran, where the players on the national roster are household names. Defeating the Americans in a World Cup game again would likely be met with exuberant national pride, he says. However, “a loss to the U.S. team will be blamed on the ineptitude of the regime’s sporting authority for not preparing the national team well enough.”
Boroujerdi adds that some of the sport’s most beloved players, including former stars Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, have spoken out against the regime. “The regime has a track record of politically interfering with sporting decisions that run counter to FIFA rules; of putting former Revolutionary Guard officials and other hard-liners in charge of popular soccer clubs to control affairs; and removing popular players from the national team or not renewing their club contracts” if they speak out against the regime.
In 2006, Iran was temporarily banned from international competitions by FIFA after then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – an avid soccer fan – and his government were accused of interfering in national team affairs.
Daei, the legendary striker whose goal-scoring world record for a national team (109 goals in 149 appearances) was only broken by Cristiano Ronaldo last September, has publicly criticized the Tehran regime for its political involvement in sports, and for banning women from entering soccer stadiums in Iran.
More recently, Kurdish captain Voria Ghafouri was told his contract with Tehran-based Esteghlal FC would not be renewed after speaking out against civil rights issues in Iran. According to local media reports, Esteghlal fans were outraged by what they saw as an unambiguously political decision from the club’s general manager, Mostafa Ajorloo, a commander with the Revolutionary Guard.
According to the Iranwire website, more than 20 elite Iranian athletes have fled Iran in the past five years alone. These include futsal player Shiva Amini, who tells Haaretz she was banned from competing in sports in Iran after being photographed with her hair uncovered while playing abroad.
“We must follow the rules of the government, otherwise we’ll be excluded from sports and society,” Amini said. “We’re also not allowed to play against Israeli teams. Another law that hinders the progress of women in Iran is the fact that they need permission from men to leave the country.”
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist, takes heart from athletes’ acts of activism. “What gives me hope is that instead of agreeing to be part of the Iranian government’s propaganda, Iranian athletes are standing up for themselves and for the Iranian people,” she says.
According to Alinejad, who in 2020 was the target of an FBI-foiled kidnapping plot by agents of the Iranian government, “these athletes are showing the real face of the Islamic Republic and its discriminatory and inhumane behavior to the world.”
The murky relationship between politics and sports in Iran goes beyond soccer. That’s partly why in 2020 Alinejad established a coalition of Iranian activists and athletes called United for Navid – named after Navid Afkari, a national wrestling champion who was executed by the regime in September 2020 for taking part in anti-government protests.
United for Navid’s aim is to call on international sporting organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, to suspend the Islamic republic from international sports as long as athletes in Iran continue to be targeted by the regime.
Sardar Pashaei, a former world champion wrestler and national coach who now lives in Virginia, says he prequalified for the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 but was barred from leaving Iran due to his Kurdish background and because his father had protested against the Islamic regime in 1979.
Pashaei, who is also a campaign manager for United for Navid, says that most of the sports federations in Iran consist of members of the Revolutionary Guard, including Iran’s Volleyball Federation, which is headed by Mohammad Reza Davarzani – a former IRGC commander who has been linked to various corruption scandals.
“These Revolutionary Guard members want to be recognized by the world as legitimate diplomats,” Pashaei says. “We’re seeing more and more generals from the Guard be involved in sports in order to hide their military background and be more involved in the international community.”
In response to a request for comment, the International Olympic Committee told Haaretz that it has “been working closely together with the Iranian National Olympic Committee and the government authorities over the past few years and received clear and written assurances from the Iranian NOC and government authorities that they were committed to fully complying with the Olympic Charter.”
Optimists might see the upcoming World Cup and the match-up between Iran and the United States as a potential opportunity to advance sports diplomacy in ways that traditional peace-making have failed. Indeed, U.S. defender Jeff Agoos said back in 1998: “We did more in 90 minutes than the politicians did in 20 years.”
The Middle East Institute’s Vatanka expects more tensions at a political than field level when the teams face off at the Al Thumama Stadium. “The Iranian soccer team is made up of players who represent the common sentiment held in Iran – which is that the regime’s anti-American attitude is not something they hold,” he says.
“It’s easy to forget that simple fact, but watch out for smiles, handshakes and hopefully good sportsmanship at the World Cup from both the U.S. and Iran,” he adds. “They will keep the politics out. They owe it to their fans, if nothing else.”
Yet even handshakes have extra ramifications in this particular game. Back in 1998, Khamenei reportedly forbade the Iranian players from moving toward the American players for the traditional pre-match handshake, as they were supposed to according to FIFA rules, and ultimately the U.S. team compromised and walked toward them.
Time will tell if Iran’s next meeting with the Americans will result in another late night for the supreme leader.