The Carlos Quieroz-managed Iran take their place in a group that includes Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The ostensible difficulty of this group seems to make it impossible for Iran to progress beyond the group stage, which is a shame because they’ve been excellent in qualification, beating South Korea twice and finishing at the top of the qualification group.
Iran’s past history at the World Cup suggests that they’ll fall at the first hurdle, as they did in 1978, 1998 and 2006. Nevertheless, the Iranian national side provide a window into what appears to be a thriving football culture in the country (unless you’re a woman, in which case you’re banned from the grounds for games involving the male sides).
The so-called ‘football revolution’, when, after Iran defeated Australia and Iranians gathered on the streets to celebrate, against the wishes of the government, led to women mingling with men and is seen as a precursor of the secularising push against Islamic fundamentalism in the country. In April and May 2006 the ban on women entering stadia was lifted then quickly reinstated.
This association between football as a mass event and a push for political reform could be seen again when several national players wore green armbands during a World Cup qualifier in Seoul to signify support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the opposition challenger in the 2009 Iranian election, which he had lost amid accusations of vote rigging. Outside the ground, some Iranians unfurled banners critical of the Ahmadinejad regime. This symbolic protest reportedly led to many of the players involved being banned from the national team, although some are back for this World Cup.
The huge scale of Iranian football (and, if you’re of a mind to speculate a little about internal Iranian politics, its revolutionary potential) is apparent in the sheer size of the crowds it draws. The national side play in the Azadi stadium, which has a capacity of 84,000 (although its record attendance is over 128,000 for a World Cup qualifier against Australia in 1998). One of the country’s largest clubs, Persepolis, also play at the ground.
My vague interest in Iranian football can be traced to Persepolis, the club for which between 2011 and 2013 the Tunisian-Irish striker (who now plays international football for Libya) Éamon Zayed played. I had watched Zayed lift the League of Ireland Premier Division trophy at United Park, Drogheda in 2007 – Drogheda United’s first league championship. That season, Zayed had scored thirteen in all competitions for the Drogs and been a dangerous, physical presence all year.
Subsequently, Zayed had gone off my radar a little, playing for Sporting Fingal for a couple of seasons before having an incredible season with Derry City in 2011, scoring 22 goals in 36 league games. This led to his transfer to Persepolis – not a standard trajectory for a League of Ireland player. The first thing I knew about his move was when I saw him score a hat-trick in the last ten minutes of the 2012 Tehran derby against Esteghal, which saw Persepolis come from 2-0 down to win. Aside from the obvious interest for fans of the League of Ireland, the video gives some idea of the kind of atmosphere the Azadi stadium can generate, and the barely contained potential of football crowds who are triggered by those perfect, unrepeatable moments where everything can change.
Posted by Karl Whitney