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Iran's national team sees popularity boost, but not just because of World Cup

The siege mentality that is re-emerging with the return of US sanctions appears to have acted to rally Iranians around the national soccer squad.
Soccer Football - World Cup - Group B - Iran vs Portugal - Mordovia Arena, Saransk, Russia - June 25, 2018   Iran players line up before the match   REUTERS/Murad Sezer - RC1F71E7CCD0

TEHRAN, Iran — Thousands of Iranians gathered at Imam Khomeini International Airport on the outskirts of Tehran on June 27 to welcome the national soccer team upon its return from the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Despite being eliminated at the group stage once again, the team has received unparalleled praise from the public over its performance, having defeated Morocco, tied against Portugal and lost by only one goal against Spain. Indeed, the large crowd that showed up at 2 a.m. chanting “Thank You!” was only a sliver of the millions of Iranian soccer devotees with similar sentiments about their national team.

Like many other places around the world, the World Cup is a popular event in Iran. As before, the tournament ignited a sense of excitement and pride among viewers as their home country’s representative was tested on a global stage. But this year was different. Iranians also had other, unique reasons to root for their national team, especially in light of the ongoing economic and political crises in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. One of these reasons is how ordinary Iranians relate to the squad on a personal level. Indeed, shared experiences and emotions, whether consciously or unconsciously, seem to have united otherwise divided Iranians in strongly supporting their national team — and especially together, in public.

International sports, and particularly the World Cup, commonly claim to transcend politics, but when it comes to Iran, soccer is not exempt from politicization — whether by hard-liners at home or abroad.

Back in August 2017, there was talk of a lifelong ban on two players being part of the national team because they’d participated in a match with their Greek club against an Israeli team. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have banned any contact with Israel, including at sports events. The talk of a ban, which drew widespread criticism from both team officials and ordinary people, struck a personal chord with many, as it echoed restrictions on education and employment as well as outright imprisonment for political reasons. Indeed, one report by now-closed Iranian newspaper Jame’e Farda said at least 150 Iranian university students at the graduate level were denied entrance to a university over their political profiles.

In preparing for the World Cup, the Iranian national soccer team was also subject to several directly and indirectly politically driven limitations. In the most publicized instance, sports clothing supplier Nike withdrew its sponsorship to provide boots to the team due to the reimposed US sanctions.

Pegah, an aerospace researcher living in Tehran, told Al-Monitor that she felt a direct association with such restrictions in her personal experience and expressed regret over the lack of separation between politics and sports, culture and science. “Just recently, the Journal of Aerospace Science and Technology rejected a paper I had co-authored simply due to the sanctions," she said. "I feel like the case with Nike was similarly unfair and lamentable.”

Team Melli, as the national squad is referred to in Iran, had also seen friendlies with Kosovo and Greece canceled while preparing for the World Cup. In this vein, it should be noted that other nonpolitical entities such as Iranian startups, tourism entrepreneurs and students have repeatedly become victims of measures meant to target the Iranian political establishment.

Taha Imani, a 31-year-old soccer fan who’s long been an avid supporter of Team Melli, told Al-Monitor that despite the “massive negative impact” of these hardships, something positive might have been born out of them.

“I think all these hurdles made the team motivated and the players seem to have wanted to prove to the world that such problems cannot stop them from playing their best games. The nation, which is currently going through uncertain times, also became more united as soccer enthusiasm gave them an opportunity to escape from their daily problems.”

But this empathy is not only expressed among regular soccer fans. This year, in a rare instance — and after a 38-year ban — large crowds of men, women and children were allowed to watch World Cup games alongside each other at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. The broken taboo on the presence of women at soccer stadiums brought many Iranians, some of whom did not understand the rules of the game, to watch Team Melli’s games at other public venues.

Hamid H. Khalaj, 40, shared his perspective of this phenomenon with Al-Monitor, saying, “I watched Iran’s last game [against Portugal] with my family and friends. What struck me most was how people, to whom soccer had never appealed, were acting like hardcore supporters. When Iran scored on the penalty, my friend’s wife jumped up with clenched fists to express her excitement. It was a rare sight!” Similarly, Amirhossein Rezvanpour, 25, told Al-Monitor of his surprise when his ailing grandmother suddenly wanted to join family watching parties.

Asked why support for Team Melli was so widespread this year — engulfing people who aren’t soccer fans — Imani told Al-Monitor, “As a nation we are all in the same boat and the formula is that foreign hostility toward any nation will likely make the people more united. During the World Cup, you could feel the passion for Iran in the air. Maybe this is the reason that many people preferred to watch Iran's matches together in public places.”

Iranian media reported that nearly 11.5 million viewers watched the June 20 game between Iran and Spain. This figure balloons when considering Iranians who watch games on satellite networks as opposed to Iranian state TV.

While several other factors, including the scale of advertisements in support of the team, have contributed to the surge in viewership, some officials still argue that Team Melli did not enjoy enough financial support. Al-Monitor spoke with experts in the field of psychology to examine the impact of less-noticed contributing factors behind this trend.

Hashem Faal, a sports psychologist with the Ardabilian Sport Psychology Committee, said, “Economic and political problems such as inflation and sanctions have turned soccer into an excuse for people to set aside their grievances and celebrate, albeit temporarily. With social media, people had the chance to be in more direct contact with athletes, see shared woes and feel more connected to them. People think of the soccer team as an accurate reflection of their own selves, which has endured different pressures both from inside and outside the country.”

The idea of ordinary Iranians coming together in force due to their personal connection with the pressures faced by Team Melli was echoed by psychology graduate Zeinab Pendar. “The victory and loss of a team can create shared emotions among its fans. When people identify similarities with themselves and the players, they feel closer to them, especially when the difficulty they have to endure is a cliched difficulty like sanctions.”

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