Four years ago after a promising start in the World Cup qualifying games, Iran's national team suffered a monumental collapse. By its last game, when all that was needed to advance was a tie with lowly Qatar, Iran inexplicably succumbed to its own internal strife and fell apart. The Saudi squad, which had started slow, ended up finishing first in the group and qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Three games later, continuing its pattern of horrible management, poor play and just bad luck, Iran watched its hopes disappearing before it pulled off a miracle finish in the last minutes of a memorable game against Australia. If there was a lesson to be learned there, it was to “never give up”. Perhaps Iran can revisit that lesson now.
In this year's qualifying, Iran fared much better almost to the very end. It was a more confident and coherent team though still lacking in modern team skills, and there appeared to be less infighting under the tutelage of the Croat coach Miroslav Blazovic. It wasn't until the last game that suddenly the worst of the Iranian team came out. Although they had already been eliminated, Bahrain arguably played their best game ever, with an energy and motivation they hadn't shown against any other team — that is, when they were not rolling over and imitating WWF wrestlers after a supposedly painful hit.
The loss may not have been intentional or premeditated, although it was difficult not to think that. In fact there has been widespread speculation that the government ordered the team to lose in order to prevent riots in the streets, similar to wild celebrations four years ago. Anonymous letter writers and radio show callers to stations abroad claimed Iran would for sure lose the game by order of higher ups. There were rumors of attempts to poison their food before the game. There were also rumors of promises of hefty pay-offs by the Saudis, should Bahrain win the game. Indeed, it was surreal to watch Bahraini fans wave Saudi flags. There were also reports of loud Bahraini fans outside the Iranian team's hotel to prevent them from resting.
Nothing made sense, There was Ali Daei almost begging a red card by unnecessarily charging a Bahraini defender from behind and flagrantly elbowing and slamming him to the ground, only not to get red-carded by an inexperienced Guatemalan referee. There was Dinmohmmadi, painfully ineffective the whole game, who then managed to receive a red card for, of all things, the ensuing celebrations upon Iran's only goal. If you can explain that, you can explain how you can manage to get a speeding ticket while you are parked. There was a withdrawn Ali Karimi who in the preceding days would refuse to eat the food at the hotel and would make up excuses for his behavior which would seem almost childish on the surface, such as “I'm not hungry” or that “if I wanted kabob I would have stayed in Iran.” There was a an entire offensive line who seemed reluctant to want to shoot the ball, to the point that the distraught Iranian broadcaster amazed at how Iranians were passing the ball in the penalty area but not willing to shoot suddenly screamed “WHY DOESN'T SOMEONE SHOOT THAT BALL?”
To a fan of the sport, it was an ugly game. It was a game in which Bahrain resorted to perhaps the most unclassy practice in the game: rolling over and faking injury in order to kill time and the other team's momentum. This was what Bahrain practiced to achieve its 0-0 tie in the first leg in Tehran, one in which Iran wasted more chances to score than one cares to remember, one in a which a win would have made the outcome of the ugly away match irrelevant. The old saying “waste not, want not” comes to mind. The inexperienced referee finally chose to deal with Bahrain's shenanigans when the result was almost academic: 80 minutes into the game, a red card was shown to a Bahraini who had fainted on the sidelines, faking labor pains of a phantom pregnancy. Perhaps the referee figured out that the player was planning on remaining there for a long time when he pulled out his cell phone and called room service and ordered a pizza (no anchovies).
Still, none of that explains what happened to the Iranian team. One could argue they wilted under the tremendous force of expectations from a nation repressed under social, political and economic hardships. They look at football as a way to taste a little of the success so tragically lacking in their lives. Their national ego already badly bruised by friend and foe alike, they had to endure yet another humiliation, this time by Bahrain, which suddenly appeared to be the Asian powerhouse, even though it is one hundredth the size of Iran in population, geography, soccer tradition and passion. Iran was meant to lose and it achieved it in a most shameful way. Afterwards, humiliated perhaps more by their own demons than by the opposing team's imaginary prowess, they took to their locker room after being further pushed around at the door by the Bahraini security, and cried. And there, they already claimed their next defeat, regardless of who it was.
How this team, which in 1997 went to hell and back, has so quickly forgotten the value of not losing hope and is choosing to behave so fatalistically as to claim there is no hope to win, is puzzling. Perhaps that fatalism is a cultural character which haunts our battered nation, one of those few things that help hold us down. This is the same fatalism that too often drives us to concede without even trying because of our belief in some ominous unseen force. It used to be the English who were behind it all, then the Shah and his court, then the invisible hands of imperialistic powers who secretly removed the monarchy, then the menacing reaches of the Islamic Republic, who in this case “persuaded” the footballers to throw the game. It is the same fatalism that makes us wonder if there is any point in doing anything substantial beyond day-to-day sustenance, that it's all rigged and hopeless, that whatever we do is doomed to fail because of some genetic, divine, geographical, evil, predestined, sinister, oil-related, diabolical force with no name.
In just about any game or medal Iran wins, you will notice this obligatory line about how it was “Divine Will” that allowed them to win, as though they had nothing to do with it and didn't train and work hard and put their heart and soul into it. It is as though we're all doomed unless God makes an exception, shows a grain of mercy, and allows us to win before we're relegated to our rightful place as self-loathing individuals (with paradoxically grand images of glorious bygone eras). It is as though we have no choice and it's destiny alone that has all the power. In an almost exact opposite of the American spirit — so magnificently empowered by a sense of “can-do”, that “rah-rah” spirit that roars “yeah! we can do it!” — our team quits its fighting spirit before it even tries.
In all Iranian matters, this great sense of doom is one of the strongest and most common. It is a dreaded, entrenched feeling of helplessness, that we can't overcome, that we must submit to the will of some invisible force more powerful than us, and we must therefore succumb without so much as a whimper. It is that common sense of fatalism that resides in so many, lurking, waiting, until a little incident, a catalyst, a little barb, a hint, a jab, some adversity, a little pressure, something, whatever, stimulates it and awakens it. In one, ugly stroke, suddenly, it unifies us long enough to collectively accept defeat and give in to our perceived invincible doom. It is perhaps that quality which stays dormant when we attain success within a Western system that doesn't believe in this same fatalism. And it is that characteristic we must kill before we can advance. It is on that day when an Iranian team will be able to stare defeat in the eyes and say “No! I WILL fight you, and I WILL succeed.”