Grand Islam

Ben Lyttleton tells us how Iran forgot their troubles for one glorious night

The celebrations throughout Iran after they beat Bahrain 1-0 last month to become the second team to qualify for the World Cup, one hour after Japan, passed off peacefully in spite of the country’s security forces abandoning their duties and joining fans in the streets.

This was an example of football serving as a vehicle for reform in the Islamic Republic, as for one night only some regulations were forgotten: women, more than 20 of whom had ignored a 26-year ban on attending football matches to force their way into the Azadi stadium, removed their headscarves as they partied with male fans.

The government were pleased and for more than one reason: the last time a huge crowd of football fans had gathered, in late March, they used Iran’s qualifier against Japan to stage protests against current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose predecessor, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, had described football as an “addictive product of the West”. Six people were killed and dozens injured. As a result, FIFA halved the national stadium’s capacity for their next qualifier, against North Korea, to 50,000. Iran won that game 1-0.

Iran coach Branko Ivankovic, a Croatian, has been responsible for guiding Iran to their third World Cup finals, after 1978 and 1998. He is one of many foreign coaches now working in the country as the westernisation of football there gathers pace. Recently crowned Iranian champions Foulad have a Croatian coach, Vingo Begovic, while last year’s title-winners and Iran’s quarter-final representatives in the Asian Champions League, Pas, are coached by former Turkey boss (and one-time Fulham target) Mustafa Denizli.

Teams can now afford these coaches because, since the Iranian league turned semi-professional four years ago, foreign sponsors – including LG Electronics, Mitsubishi and Sharp – have provided financial support. The two biggest teams in Iran, Perspolis and Esteghlal Ahvaz, are backed by the Iranian sport and education ministry and have a private owner respectively. But both these Tehran clubs have seen their successful cycles end recently, as the new money coming in has closed the gap in quality between the sides. Four different clubs have won the league in the past four years.

This extra quality has had an obvious impact on the national team, who are now recognised as the best the country has ever had; currently 17th in the FIFA world rankings, they are the highest placed Asian nation. “Iran have never qualified for the World Cup as easily as they just did,” said Ali Azim-Araghi, news director of Iran Sports Press. “Some of the best players in the Iranian league sometimes don’t even make the bench. And many of the players are more experienced since they have left home.”

Six of the team play in Europe, with five of them in Germany’s Bundesliga. Star player Ali Karimi recently completed a move to Bayern Munich, while midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia has been at Hamburg since 2000. Fellow midfielder Ferydoon Zandi, at Kaiserslautern, was born in Germany. More are expected to join them if they impress during the World Cup.

Another, the captain Ali Daei, made his name in Germany with Hertha Berlin and Bayern Munich before returning to finish his career with Tehran side Saba. Daei, the first player in world football to score 100 international goals, will be 36 next summer but is sure to be in the World Cup squad. As the leading sportsman in the country, his influence is huge and he has used it to continue the slow democratisation in Iran: when one young Iranian player was caught in a brothel, the government banned him from football for life and he faced possible jail-time. Daei gave an interview to one newspaper pleading that the youngster be shown leniency and allowed to learn from his mistake; the player is now on the fringes of the Iran squad.

But not everything is heading the way of the Premier League in Iran. Though the Islamic culture does not really interfere with football, there is still a code of practice for the players: they are allowed long hair but are not allowed to wear it in ponytails. When some ignored that to play in the big Tehran derby, the Iranian football federation issued warnings about their future conduct.

From WSC 222 August 2005. What was happening this month