opinion | Iran’s football team has already won

The Iran national soccer team, affectionately known as Team Melli, got off to a disheartening start to their World Cup on Monday. The side that entered the tournament as the top-ranked team from Asia lost a one-sided game against England 6-2. It’s time to make amends. On Friday, Team Melli plays Wales – a potentially winnable game for the Iranians – before taking on the United States in a thrilling game next week.

For Iranian football fans, myself included, World Cup matches are usually the pinnacle of sporting excitement. This year in Qatar it’s different. Team Melli is set in the midst of a popular uprising sparked by the murder of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, by Iran’s Morality Police in mid-September. In the weeks since, protests — led by women, young people and ethnic minorities — have spread across the country’s provinces to the rallying cry of “Woman, Life, Freedom.” The government has responded brutally, arresting thousands and killing hundreds more. At least a dozen people were shot dead in a single night last week, including a 9-year-old boy.

Against this bloody background, many Iranians have said they will not support the side. Some have called on FIFA to remove the team from the competition entirely, arguing that allowing Team Melli to play on the international stage gives the Islamic Republic an opportunity to whitewash its oppression in the country. Others just find it impossible to take care of football while protesters are being killed.

The government’s attempts to merge Team Melli’s identity with their own, coupled with the apparent willingness of some team members to play along, has further angered some Iranian fans. When some team members posed for photos with President Ebrahim Raisi before leaving for Qatar, many saw it as a betrayal. Nowhere was this dissatisfaction more apparent than in videos circulating on social media of Team Melli banners being set on fire in Iran – a previously unthinkable sight in the football-loving country.

It is not the first time that Team Melli has traveled to a World Championship in an atmosphere of national upheaval. In fact, Iran’s first World Cup appearance in 1978 bears some resemblance to the present. There was controversy surrounding the host country: Argentina, ruled by a brutal military junta that made tens of thousands of leftists disappear, was seen as an inappropriate venue for a global tournament – as was Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers and denial of LGBTQ rights, is today.

A revolution was brewing in Iran. Throughout 1978, Iranians took to the streets to protest the US-backed dictatorship of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When the team played in Argentina in June, mass protests subsided briefly, prompting the prime minister to declare the crisis over. But in late summer, protests and workers’ strikes erupted again across the country as millions joined the largest protest movement in Iranian history. Early next year the Shah’s government would fall.

Team Melli went on the pitch without their captain Parviz Ghelichkhani this year. Ghelichkhani, a committed leftist who was once briefly jailed for his political activism and forced to express public remorse during a televised confession, announced he would not play with the team in protest at Iran’s repression. Without him, the team would not be able to win in Argentina.

It would take Iran 20 years to return to the World Cup stage. The wait was worth it: on a summer night in France in 1998, Team Melli won their first World Cup match; better yet, it was a 2-1 smash against the United States. The run-up to the game had been a tense affair as security and diplomatic concerns plagued planning and stadium teams. But the game itself was a remarkable success. Team Melli presented white roses to the US team before the game, and the two teams posed for photos together before settling down for the game.

Iranians from all walks of life cheered and spent the night dancing in the streets to celebrate a national triumph together. The joy extended to the Iranian diaspora; as a teenager in New York I was tied. After the tournament I asked my mother to get me a Team Melli jersey – not an easy task. The kit she found was a few sizes too big for me, but I wore it with pride for years.

These were heady days in Iran, which last year saw the unexpected landslide election of Mohammad Khatami, a liberalizing figure who advocated a free press, diplomatic engagement with Europe and America, and greater public participation in politics. When Team Melli delivered on the pitch, many across the country were filled with hope for change. That hopeful feeling would prove fleeting.

These two World Cups, 20 years apart, testified to the close intertwining of sport and politics in Iran, a process that began when Iranian nationalists began promoting physical fitness as a means to revitalize health and fitness in the early 20th century vitality deploy nation. Soccer, introduced to the country by European mission schools and British colonial officers and enthusiastically received by Iranians, filled the bill.

But no matter how hard they tried, the authorities were never able to fully control the game. Some footballers are following the example of remarkably brave athletes and showing solidarity with protesters. For example, after winning the Iranian Super Cup this month, members of Tehran’s Esteghlal football club stood somber during the awards ceremony and refused to celebrate. A few days later, a beach soccer player, Saeed Piramoun, marked his goal of winning the tournament by simulating the act of cutting his hair – a tribute to women who remove their headscarves and cut their hair during protests.

The recent picture of Team Melli kneeling in front of the President was less inspiring. But a few days earlier, when the team played in Tehran, all but two players opted not to sing the national anthem. And ahead of Monday’s game, captain Ehsan Hajsafi said, expressed his condolences to the grieving families of Iran. Beginning with “in the name of the God of Rainbows,” a phrase Mr Hajsafi, used by the 9-year-old who was killed last week, told the protesters: “We stand with you.” The next day, the entire squad refused to sing the anthem before the game.

Team Melli now has two more chances to prove themselves on the pitch. But in a way, it doesn’t matter what happens. By standing in solidarity with the protesters at considerable personal risk, they have already won.

Golnar Nikpour is an Assistant Professor of History at Dartmouth College and a scholar of modern Iranian intellectual and cultural history.

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