Amid economic woes, soccer team performance rallies Iranians around flag

Iran’s national soccer team made history in the World Cup by tying Portugal and defeating Morocco, injecting hope and reviving pride in the midst of economic turmoil.

al-monitor Iran's Karim Ansarifard (10) celebrates his penalty-kick score against Portugal with Vahid Amiri (11) and Majid Hosseini (19), Mordovia Arena, Saransk, Russia, June 25, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson.

Jun 26, 2018

Iran was filled with pride and praise for its national soccer team, known as Team Melli, as it raised eyebrows by holding former European champion Portugal to a tie in the World Cup on June 25.

Prior to the tournament, few Iranians would have predicted a win and a draw in the "Group of Death." With a last-minute score to defeat Morocco 1-0 in a tight opener, Team Melli pushed the bar up. After a 1-0 defeat to former World Cup champion Spain, the Iranian "Cheetahs" aspired for even more and spoke of dreams that could come true in their third battle, this one against Portugal, whose superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo, had proven more than ready following his hat trick against the Spaniards.

Even though the June 25 game ended the Iranian team’s stay in Russia, the dramatic draw against Portugal was what the nation needed amid a torrent of bad news. Both newspapers and social media were inundated with acclamation for the “epic” overall victory. It made Iranians happy, even if they lamented the elimination in a "glorious closure."

Soccer in Iran has never ceased to remain interwoven with society and politics. To many, the result was an impetus to enliven confidence at a time when the country is being pushed toward economic crisis amid mounting US pressure.

Whether the World Cup performance is merely a temporary calming factor is a heated debate on Iranian social media. Users are also drawing symbolic interpretations, as if the team is a full representation of the country’s history and the nation’s collective memory. One tweet referred to left-winger Milad Mohammadi when he held up his head, closed his eyes and desperately ran to move the ball past a Portuguese counterpart: “It reverberates into my head that we will build our country one day even if we have to use our souls as the bricks.” Meanwhile, another post said, “We are tired of being the best losers.”

At the top of the debate stands goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who made a stunning save, blocking Ronaldo’s penalty kick, essentially keeping his teammates alive on the battlefield. Iranians unanimously praised the man who rose from a humble background in an underdeveloped town in western Iran. “Hugging the ball, he was hugging all of his dreams,” a tweet said in his praise.

Some grabbed the occasion to hit at the Iranian government, “We all got overexcited when [the Iranian team's coach] Carlos Queiroz said he was carrying a nation’s dream on his shoulders, unlike our officials whose dream has been nothing but to ride on our shoulders.”

Meanwhile, Tehran’s iconic Azadi Stadium was a special zone, not just because of Team Melli’s performance. Women were allowed to watch the game along with men, a trend that began with the Iran-Spain match. Thousands of women made it there for the second time since 1989. The debate over women being barred from soccer stadiums has resurfaced in recent years. Lifting the ban was a major part of the electoral platform from which moderate President Hassan Rouhani garnered considerable female support for his re-election last year. That promise has not yet been fulfilled. Yet watching a live broadcast in the stadium, despite the public prosecutor’s opposition, might be just a starter for Iranian women.