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Pride

God bless Team Melli
We all know where we were Hamid Estilli scored that looping header

November 14, 2003
The Iranian

1997, Year 1 before the World Cup
Young Iranians everywhere had been brought up to be fiercely proud of their race and all the history and legacy it entails. The majority of parents outside of Iran had not allowed their children to forget their roots. Stories told by parents and all their friends, of glorious civilizations were gratefully received. However something more recent was needed. The only news a child under the age of twenty would see, were the negative publicity generated by fundamentalism in Iran. Something they did not associate with and condemned themselves.

Being a magnificent civilization is great to hear about. One who furthered society and culture, while living in a modern paradise compared to her less advanced barbarian neighbors was nice to know, but spoke for little in modern times. The friendliness of our people and their generosity was obvious. The food spoke for itself as did the level of education or class of the ex-patriot populace. This though, was not enough impetus for an average 14-year-old to walk proudly around school talking of Iran.

Eighteen years of Islamic Revolution had soured the name Iran and changed our ethnicity to the non-terrorist-sounding: Persian. We were Persian now, always pointing out how we are not Arab or fundamental in terms of religion. We'd go so far as to point out that in fact we are Aryan and religiously diverse. These were memorized and rehearsed and often not even researched pleas to not be pigeon-holed in what is now known as the axis of evil.

A young generation needed an identity. They longed for their race to have something recent to talk about. An event was needed, one made for television and in an arena that the majority understood. In 1997 there seemed no hope for such an event to occur.

16th November 1997
I was home from University for a few days and it was the same scenario seen for the last 19 years. Iran was playing with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup, this time against Japan in Malaysia. Iran had lost its 2-1 lead to Japan and was being pushed into extra-time. When Masayuki Okano scored the 3rd and winning goal in extra-time, sending Japan to the World Cup, I was presented with a mixture of grief and acceptance that decades starved of success bred in me. The result was Iran having to play the strong and rested Australian side, managed by former England Manager Terry Venables over two legs, a week later.

At this point neither I nor anyone else expected football to be the event that Iran's nearly lost generation abroad, needed for an awakening. The 1-1 hard fought draw in Iran's Azadi Stadium only made people even more certain of what was to follow.

What was to follow, changed not only my life but those of so many others. What 85,022 people witnessed in the Melbourne Cricket Club's Stadium was an event that led to a generation having a reason to be swelled with pride to this day. It was the 74th minute and Iran was trailing 2-0. In a game Iran was being dominated in, 15 minutes were left for Iran to score 2 goals.

Karim Bagheri's strike in the 75th minute left us excited but still certain of defeat. We were plucky losers; lady luck never shone her smile on us. Four improbable minutes later Khodadad Azizi's run was picked out and he found himself approaching the Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich. When he side footed it past the goalkeeper Iranian's worldwide froze. Did the ball really go in? Did we actually score an equalizer? Are we really 10 minutes away from the World Cup, the most famous sporting event in the world? Is it really possible 3 billion people will be seeing us and remembering us again?

Those 2 seconds of silence seemed like hours. My heart was slowed, my breath held, and then all of us simultaneously exploded. Bodies too old were jumping in the air. Fists not shaken since 17 years were being thrown up while screams of delight were let out by parents in front of disbelieving children. We are all one at this point.

We prayed and we closed our eyes due to the pressure. We willed the players to run, we gave them all our energy in the hope they could hold out. The minutes passed like hours and the referee even had the gall to add injury minutes on for the Australians. When he finally blew his whistle long held tears seeped out. It had actually happened. We were watching our players hugging and kissing each other. We could see a very small number of Iranians in the stands waving flags hysterically...

2003, Year 5 after the World Cup
Look at yourself, your friends and family. How many of you have the white Team Melli (national team) shirts? When family goes to visit Iran one more item is added to the list of soghati (presents): Football Shirts. How many Iranian football sites are there now online and how often do we check them? Bars, pubs and restaurants charge large fees for people to sit and watch our national team play in the early hours of the morning. Name one person you know who painted their face in Iran's colours before 1998? We all went or know someone who went to France for the World Cup.

Look at our youth, those who have never been to Iran, never visited the mosques of Isfahan, but know they have a team called Sepahan there. Ask them to name five politicians, or actors and then ask them to name five Iranian football players. Ask them to name which players are or were plying their trade in Europe. We have seen Azizi play in the Spartan Stadium in San Jose with our own eyes. We have seen Mehrdad Minavand dancing in Iranian clubs in Austria. We have seen Mehdi Mahdavikia be the number one assist giver in the German Bundesliga. They no longer just follow the national team, but also the clubs plying their trade in the now professional league.

In September 2000 I had English friends of mine betting on the Iran game against Austria. We made sure all our non-Iranian friends never forget about our team, this team of our people who defeated America on front of the world's media. We all know where we were Hamid Estilli scored that looping header and Mehdi Mahdavikia toe-poked the ball past the stretched Kasey Keller. For those of you wondering it was the 21st June. Only 39,000 people were in the stadium, but everyone one of us were there with them.

For me though I will never forget the 28th November 1998. That day was the first time I had something positive and current about Iran to speak on to my English friends. Iran had changed our lives in Melbourne and we are not about to let it go back to how it was.

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