Iranian forward Ashkan Dejagah during Monday’s match. Photo: northjersey.com
The World Cup is upon us! After four years of anticipation, the most-watched sporting event in the world is finally underway in Brazil. I’ve been keeping up with the games here in Tunis, and can proudly say I cheered my heart out (in a crowded café, alone) when Team USA won their first match against Ghana. This year, Algeria and Iran, widely considered the Middle East’s two best national soccer teams, are taking part. Algeria went from being ranked 103rd in the world by FIFA World Rankings to 22nd in 2014. Their first game against Belgium was a 2-1 loss, but the squad is optimistic about their next match against Korea on Sunday. Iran, the top-ranked team in Asia, has a particularly interesting story in the 2014 World Cup—its fourth ever—and it is much more closely tied to world politics than you might expect.
Back in November, we wrote about Iran’s recently-elected president, Hassan Rouhani, in our article US-Iran Relations: A New Optimism. While progress has been slow, there has been huge improvement in the nuclear negotiations between the US and Iran, and much greater cooperation and transparency than under the Islamic Republic’s previous president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Nevertheless, the myriad unilateral and multilateral sanctions imposed by America and the EU in 2012 because of Iran’s controversial nuclear program have significantly altered Iran’s World Cup experience and prospects.
In the year between qualifying for the World Cup and the start of the competition, a team would typically play 12-15 warm-up games with other countries. Up until one month ago, Iran had played one. This is because the Iranian Football Federation has not been able to collect the funds it should have received from international organizations due to sanctions on several kinds of global financial transactions. There have even been reports that Team Iran was not able to purchase extra jerseys for its players, meaning the athletes could not exchange shirts at the end of games. These disadvantages have a big impact in Iran, where soccer is the most widely watched sport in the country. To give you an idea, when Iran qualified for the World Cup last year, the celebrations in the streets were roughly the same size as those that took place after President Rouhani’s electoral victory. Rouhani is well aware of this; which explains why one of his first high-profile international meetings following his election was with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Iran’s soccer team was ranked 1st in Asia and 43rd in the world by FIFA’s 2014 World Rankings. The limits put on the team because of international political dealings and the actions of its government seem very unfair, yet Iranians are still hopeful. Mehdi, a current Washington DC resident originally from Tehran, said, “It’s ridiculous that the team should pay for this. We don’t want political problems, we just want to have a chance and to share this with the world. Our team had less preparation than any other country, but they are still fighting hard. I have faith in them.” Dena, from Shiraz, said, “Iran’s team and all of our fans have nothing to do with the nuclear program. The World Cup is to unite, not to divide. I think Iran will have a great future in soccer when things get better with the talks. This year will be hard, but you never know what could happen!” And why not be hopeful—Iran’s last practice game against Trinidad and Tobago was a morale-boosting 2-0 victory for Iran—its first win in any World Cup warm-up match.
So far, Iran has played one match, against Nigeria. The result was a 0-0 tie. Iranian forward player Ashkan Dejagah said in a recent interview that although they missed two goal opportunities, they defended well. “Of course I am so happy for obtaining our first point in the 2014 World Cup”, he said. Despite the team’s economic and logistical setbacks, the whole country is watching with anticipation and excitement in the hopes that maybe, for the first time, Iran will make it to the competition’s second round. The team will go up against Argentina next, one of the world’s top squads, but Dejagah is optimistic. “It has always been a dream of mine to play in the World Cup, and I am proud to show off our football in Brazil”, he said. “Perhaps we will have a surprise.”
Taking part in the World Cup at all is already so much to be excited about, and Iranians all over the world are celebrating. In my hometown, Bethesda, Maryland, Iranian restaurants and kebab shops airing the games have been packed to the brim. My friend Michael, from Iran, said, “I don’t care about the politics and I don’t care about whether our chances are bad—we made it in and I am proud of my team no matter what! So let’s celebrate it!”
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