Joyful Iranians filled the streets of Lyon that night – many of them I discovered were foreigners living in Los Angeles, sometimes called Teherangeres.
Their happiness that night had another dimension. For many Iranians, this victory was a victory over an Iranian theocratic regime that rarely takes advantage of sports and the joy that sports bring to their people.
Team Meri, as the Iranian team is known, represents more than football in the country. It is a symbol of what life should and should be. “Football matches in Iran are unlike anywhere else on the planet,” said Dan Gaspar, an American who was part of Iran’s coaching staff for several years. “When they enter the stadium, it’s a sanctuary for them,” he added, because Iranians are not allowed to sing or dance in public.
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As history has it, Iran will play the US in Qatar on November 29th, but the setting will be very different.Domestically, Iran has violently sought to suppress an uprising led by women pursuing human rights in daily protests across the country. Masa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by the notorious “morality police” for not covering her hair properly. Foreign policy, Iran has supplied Russia with suicide drones whose main purpose is to terrorize Ukrainian civilians and destroy critical infrastructure such as electricity and water.
A soccer ball may not bring peace, but geopolitics cannot be ignored. Russia was kicked out of the race shortly after its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Recently, human rights groups such as Open Stadium have called on football’s governing body, FIFA, to disqualify Iran for the same reason it gave Russia a red card.
It is guaranteed, but unlikely. FIFA’s own charter states that it “serves to protect those who advocate respect for human rights in relation to its activities”. But as the Iranian regime ramps up its arrests of activists, artists, academics and students who challenge its authority, football’s supreme ruler remains unmoved. there is a possibility. The Qatari has “earned” the right to host the World Cup in 2010, a desert country with little football history. This was years before FIFA was found to be severely corrupt by Justice Department prosecutors. Qatar’s anti-women, anti-gay, anti-labor, anti-alcohol (sorry, England) authoritarianism was not considered a disqualification, at least not by FIFA’s flexible ethical standards. This has more interpretations than the offside rule.
After spending more than $200 billion to host the World Cup, Qataris also resent being held accountable for their human rights record. In the UK, a group linked to Saudi ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, has launched one of Britain’s legendary teams, Newcastle United. Saudi Arabia, who did not run when it came to crushing dissent, also qualified for the Cup.
Members of Team Meri have already made it clear that they will not play for the unloved government. This is not so subtle support for Iranian women.
That’s one argument for letting Iran compete. The other is that his 5 billion viewers and his 1.3 million visitors expected for the World Cup will bring more attention to the struggle in Iran. “Team Melli in the limelight is what we all need.” murmured Iranian soccer fan. “To show the world, together we are against the regime.”
In Qatar, the U.S. Men’s National Team will provide assistance to Iranian women, though specific methods have yet to be revealed.
For Iranian players, the risks are personal and professional. The World Cup is a showcase for talent, especially for Iranians who want to move and play in Europe. , Sardar Azmon is the only one to openly express his support for women in Iran.
Want to add drama to your photos? This could be the best Iranian team ever. Like Carlos Queiroz, Iran has had outstanding coaches and popular figures who have stood up to any interference by the authorities. Iran are also playing in a weak first round group, facing a favored British team, an aging Wales team and a young USA team despite being underwhelmed in qualifying.
Assuming FIFA doesn’t find the backbone to disqualify the Iranians for their brutal government, members of Team Meri put up a good fight in the group stage, even if they are ultimately eliminated. When they return to the Bloody Burning Land, more important battles will still be fought.