Iran's long and turbulent journey from the ashes of a once fledgling soccer program back to glory days came to an end, as far as the World Cup was concerned, when Iran's offense ran into the solid wall of the German soccer giants. This journey was a campaign that truly inspired a battered nation and gave them cause for celebration and pride, and for that, all Iranians should be thankful. I salute the Iranian national team.
But in many ways, this was just the beginning. The fire that this journey sparked will burn even brighter four years from now. A year ago, when the pre-qualifying started, it was mostly us, the soccer nuts, who were interested in following it. By the end, all Iranians were spellbound.
For me, as I'm sure for many other Iranian men, soccer has been the only constant. The world has changed in drastic and amazing ways since I was a kid playing in dirt streets until night would fall and my mother would drag me back into the house. My life has changed in ways I never imagined. My homeland has contorted through traumatic years of revolution, war and social upheavals. Friends have come and gone (no, I don't mean the TV show, although I wish that would leave the airwaves soon). Relationships have started and ended. I have started love affairs with new games. Some I still play, some I have given up. I have moved from city to city. I have been jaded by my experiences.
Although I don't mean to make it sound poetic or surreal, after all of that, whenever I play soccer, I can still experience the same naive and innocent feeling that I had when I was a kid. It's still deep inside, intact, unmarred and pure. I get that feeling when I play. I get that feeling when I watch Iran play, just like when I used to follow it as a kid. I get that feeling when I look at old picture of soccer faces from the past who're impervious to what's about to happen. It's one of those precious forms of ecstasy that can't be bought, can't be injected, can't be snorted.
For me, it made sense to be absorbed by the game. I was completely caught off guard when I suddenly found that there were more than just us, soccer jocks, waking up at the wee hours of the morning to drive from sports bar to sports bar until we would find one that would show the game. It was an avalanche that got bigger and bigger. Everyone was catching the Iran fever. What were all those women doing standing in lines and watching the games anyway, the ones asking “Which one is Daei?” And you just know that once you get women watching, you'll get all those comments about the looks: “I like Abedzadeh. He's cute.” But that's all right. There's plenty of room for all fans. Just hop on board. Be ready for a wild ride, because there are bumps on the road. A team wins and it loses. And the whole nation got on board.
In all, the Iranian players provided a year's worth of thrills and lessons in a tremendous roller coaster ride which exposed quite a few things about ourselves. Among the negatives were the scapegoating by the people in charge, players bickering, in-fighting, an inept soccer federation with an embarrassing track record in organizational skills or having any kind of long term planning, and lots of lip service in the absence of real substance.
But the positives far outweighed the negatives. The players' big hearts and a tenacious desire to overcome adversity were exemplary. Their quest was a lesson in never giving up, not when they stormed back from a 2-0 against China, in China, to stun them 4-2, not when they played most of the game short-handed in the hot sun of Saudi Arabia only to lose in the last minute, and certainly not in Australia. There, having blown their other two chances to qualify earlier, outplayed most of the game, down 2-0 in front of a hostile crowd, with minutes left to a humiliating elimination, they stared defeat in the eye and didn't back down. It's easy to see how they could have surrendered to that passive aspect of our culture, the one that teaches fatalism through giving in to pre-destiny, the dreaded “qesmat.” But, they chose that other cultural wisdom that promises “at the end of night's darkness, lays dawn's light.”
They taught a lesson in gracefulness and modesty. As of yet, they have remained unspoiled by what goes on in other parts of world, where arrogant sports and pop stars buy into their own false images and try to live up to the larger-than-life status that the public grants them, where they become untouchable, where they stop signing autographs for adoring fans because those free autographs will dilute the value of their commercial ones. In contrast, you still see a tiny Azizi walking among a sea of fans who freely walk up to him to plant kisses on his humble face and you don't see menacing bodyguards in shades shoving people out of the way of the star/god.
Iranian kids living both in Iran and abroad learned they have alternative role models to many of the grotesquely self-absorbed Western ones. Perhaps they can go back and learn about some of the past legends, the likes of Takhti, whose measure of success wasn't the number of his gold medals or his earnings, but his immense popularity due to his incredible generosity and humility. Perhaps the people running the affairs of the country, who're so paranoid of Westoxification and invasion of Western pop icons, can learn from this, that the problem isn't so much the West, but the lack of better native alternatives to what the West offers, and the solution isn't “legislating morality” so much as creating an unintrusive environment for nurturing morality. Here was a prototype that worked. Now, build on that.
There was a lesson for the rest of the world as well: Take your guns, your colonialist attitudes and conspiracies away, treat Iranians with respect, and if they offer back anything other than flowers and hands of friendship, just as prior to the U.S. game, then pass judgement. Iranians are gentle people who cherish new friends. If in this World Cup you saw instances of Iranian drunken hooligans dogging people of other countries, then you can believe the demonic images that the media has fed you. Observe how whenever Iran won something, there were people dancing in streets of Iran and exchanging sweets and hugs, not burning cities and looting, as it so often happens in cities of the West when a city's team wins a championship.
The team may have lost a game, but it won our hearts over.