The Curse of Iranian Soccer: Politics
Iran recently scored not one, but two soccer successes.
Fans celebrated after the country’s national team qualified — for the third consecutive time — for the World Cup after beating Iraq 1-0 last week. And it wasn’t just men celebrating. It was men and women mingling freely in a Tehran square.
That was after men and women, albeit segregated, cheered on their team in Tehran’s Azadi or “Freedom” Stadium.
Although banned from attending men’s domestic soccer matches, the presence of women for an international qualifier was evidence that some kinds of pressure on Iran work — at least when the pressure is aligned with popular domestic demands.
But there is bad news too, and that may be more consequential and contain a cautionary note for Iranian sports and sports globally — the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) decided to expel three of Iran’s top clubs from the 2022 Asian Champions League.
The AFC penalized the clubs, two of which are owned by the Iranian youth and sports ministry, for failing to meet the group’s managerial and infrastructural standards and its ownership rules.
To meet AFC standards, Iranian clubs would have to develop youth academies, promote women’s soccer, and establish marketing departments to help them become commercially sustainable. Inevitably, that would require privatization, a political risk that so far has been one step too far for Iranian leaders.
Too often, soccer in Iran, as elsewhere in the Middle East, has been a catalyst for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration. That’s why the state insists on controlling it rigidly.
Conservative Iranian member of parliament Ahmad Rastineh said as much recently, when he insisted that it would be “impossible” to grant independence to the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country’s governing soccer body.
But the AFC’s demands appear to have encouraged critics of government control to come out of the woodwork.
“The whole problem today is the presence of politics in football,” said Dariush Mostafavi, who was chairman of the Iranian football federation in the 1990s. Mostafavi was speaking on state television.
Mostafavi’s frustrations appear to be shared by many in soccer, as well as more implicitly by the federation’s current leadership.
In a remarkable move, the Iranian federation’s secretary-general, Hassan Kamranifar, came out swinging in support of Mehdi Mahdavikia, a former national team captain, who caused a stir for wearing a jersey featuring the flags of all FIFA member countries, including Israel, during a friendly game in Qatar.
Mahdavikia “is one of the greats of Iranian football” and “a symbol of pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Kamranifar said in a statement on the federation’s website.
The expulsion of the Iranian clubs and the politics of Iranian soccer is the sharp edge of what is a global rather than a local problem: the incestuous and inseparable relationship between sports and politics, and the insistence of international sports governors on maintaining the fiction that there is a wall between the two.
The criticism expressed by the Iranian football association and Mostafavi fits an emerging trend among some athletes and some club managers to stand up for various rights, including those of LGBT and others.
Seven-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton wore a helmet featuring the colors of the LGBTI Pride Progress Flag during the recent Grand Prix races in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as a challenge to the two Gulf states’ refusal to recognize the rights of sexual minorities. Similarly, the Danish Football Union (DBU), Denmark’s governing soccer body, announced that its commercial sponsors had agreed to surrender space on training kits to allow for messaging critical of Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers.
Pressured by human rights groups and trade unions, Qatar has significantly improved its labor regime since the 2010 awarding by FIFA of its 2022 World Cup hosting rights. However, many argue that Qatar needs to ensure that adopted reforms are properly implemented.
Said Iranian sports journalist Behnam Jafarzadeh: “Most people agree with the AFC’s decision and say they wish they had done this earlier.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.