A soccer team once united Iran. Now it reflects its divisions

A ban seems highly unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter to all the World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to focus on soccer ahead of politics.
Iran football team
Iran football teamReuters

J LONGMAN AND F FASSIHI

CHENNAI: Iran’s national soccer team has historically been viewed as a representative of the country’s people, not of the Islamic Republic’s government. Team Melli, as the squad is known, has been embraced as an apolitical force, and as a secular passion that reflected a certain ideal, the Iran of everyone’s imagination. For years, the team has brought unity and joy to a fractious nation. Support for it has been effectively unconditional.

Until now. As the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the first time the world’s biggest sporting event has been held in the Middle East, the Iranian team finds itself in an unfamiliar, polarising position.

Team Melli has become ensnared in the internal politics of Iran, where an ongoing national uprising led by women and young people is demanding an end to clerical rule, and seeking more equitable treatment and increased personal freedoms. The protests were spurred by the mid-September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, a young woman who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on charges of violating a law requiring head coverings for women.

Some activists inside and outside Iran have called for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to prohibit Iran from competing in the World Cup. They cite the government’s crackdown on protesters, which has left more than 250 killed, but also longstanding ones like limited stadium access for women to watch matches, and more overtly political complaints, like Iran’s providing of weaponised drones to Russia to aid its invasion of Ukraine.

A ban seems highly unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter to all the World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to focus on soccer ahead of politics. But support for Team Melli is now divided even at home in this emotional and visceral moment, analysts, fans, journalists, and former coaches and players said.

The divide was clear in the wounded voice of Jalal Talebi, 80, who coached his native Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he guided Team Melli to its most important victory ever, over the United States. (Iran is once again in the same first-round group as the United States in Qatar.) Talebi called soccer “part of life” in an interview, but said that he supports the protests and believes it is “not the time” to participate in the World Cup. He said he may decline to serve as a commentator for international TV, and may not even watch Iran’s games from his home in the Bay Area.

“How could I feel to watch football when my neighbour, my brother, my countryman and countrywoman are in such a bad situation?” Talebi said. Mohammad Motamedi, 44, a popular Iranian vocalist, was chosen to be Team Melli’s official singer for this World Cup but declined, writing on his Instagram page, “under the circumstances, I don’t even feel like talking, let alone singing.” But other fans said they fully supported Iran’s participation. Ali Gholizadeh, 37, a postdoctoral researcher from Mashhad, said that soccer is one of the remaining joys for people who feel squeezed by repression and international economic sanctions.

The writers are journalists with NYT©2022

The New York Times

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