First and foremost I'd like to thank a very inquisitive, bright young lady, who with her question got me re-interested in writing a piece about this subject. Zendebad!
Being a fanatical football fan, a student of politics, and a lover of Iran, I have decided to in brief look at all three interests and see if there is a connection between all or some. With a bit of research, indeed I found out there is. One could probably write a detailed historical/analytical book on this subject, but with time constraints, I will only indulge the reader's imagination with a short paper, which is a good start to this interesting and thus far not really researched topic. What one reads here is a good start to this intriguing piece of analysis, but one should definitely note that this piece does not do the subject the full justice it deserved.
Football and politics go hand in hand in Iranian history, as what happens in and around the pitch mirrors at times what goes on in Iranian society, and can be a gauge of things to come. Take for example the simple yet defiant act against the past Pahlavi king. The fans of football rallied around Perspolis — the people's team (previously known as Shahin-which had some Marxist roots), against Taj (the Crown). This split in society of the willingness of uniting as a people to control their own team (destiny) against the establishment, the crown, was portrayed well on and off the football pitch.
Ironically, the Shah fell not because people's social restrictions were trampled on, or even wholly because of the economic situation — the Shah pumped money and structure to many programs including football — but in the end whatever he put in, turned against him, including football. Without going through the history of it, Taj the football club was not the only crown that fell in 1979, and for a brief period the people did indeed win.
Fast forward to 1997-98, a population starving for political, social and economic change with the election of President Khatami were given a ray of hope. Social restrictions eased, people's political participation increased, and their was hope that Iranians could now help shape the destiny of their ancient homeland. For once people thought one could advance in Iranian society through their merit and qualifications rather then how linked they are to the regime, or whom they know (parti-bazi). This was reflected in Iran's football at that time period as well.
In November twenty-ninth of 1997, an explosion like that of Khatami's election hit Iran's football. On that fateful day in Melbourne, Iran qualified for the World Cup. Iranian people hit the streets in all cities in ecstasy of celebration and joy for several days and nights, women and men mixed freely hand in hand in hopes of a better future. No IRI force was able to put out or quell this behavior; the people at last it seemed could come out of their shell that was built by the clerics in order to contain them in. Here, football reflected exactly what was going on in Iran at that time in history.
For once in a long while, a competent, educated man became head of Iran's football federation, Safaie Farahani. He like Khatami and the reformers in society, politics and economics, installed his own football reform programs. These programs included; youth football academies, a push to make Iran's football league professional, bringing in of highly touted foreign coaches, and other long term programs were set into place to improve Iran's overall football infrastructure. A sense of a new beginning thus entered into Iranian football as it did in Iran as a whole.
Khatami during that period also instilled new hopes for Iran's youth as well as women, promising them equality and opportunity. This was reflected in football as well, women for the first time since 1979 entered Azadi (Aryamehr) stadium to celebrate and congratulate their football team. There were even talks of women being allowed to become spectators in Iran's stadias once again.
In Iran's football history too, the 'monopoly' of Perspolis and Taj (Esteglal) players in the national team was broken, as players from all teams and regions were given a shot at the national team based on their qualification, not if they belonged to one of two Iranian football giants. Thus, a small gap it seemed was opening up in football and society that allowed for some advancement in the Islamic Republic based on merit.
In Iranian foreign relations and international politics, Khatami expressed hopes of a dialogue of civilizations and a willingness to re-join the world community. In football, Iran rejoined the world community as well joining 31 other nations in a celebration of nationhood and world togetherness.
July 1998, Iran beats the United States 2-1 on that faithful day in Lyon. Again celebrations ensue in Iran and all over the world. There is this openness of Iranian exiles and those within Iran, as for example tourism back to the fatherland increases, the Iranian community in a sense is re-united.
In terms of people to people dialogue, during those ninety-plus minutes on the field, in and around the stadium, all over the world, the Iranian people and American people re-established/confirmed their respect and genuine fondness for each other. In American-Iranian relations, once gain talks of a possible rapprochement springs up. One hears whispers on both sides of US-China ping-pong type diplomacy between the two great nations, and this is re-iterated when Iran visits the United States for a friendly game between the two countries.
Throughout Khatami's early years of presidency as some of Iran's social, political and economic restrictions changed, and the situation improved slightly for the population, so too did it for Iran's football. Iran won the Asian Games in 1998, the league was well on its way to becoming professional (at least in name which is a big step in the IRI), and overall one sensed that things could and would only improve.
Continuing towards the 2001-02 World Cup Qualifying campaign, things seemed to be going smoothly, for Iran had a world renowned coach in Miroslav Blazevich (in 1998 led Croatia to third in the World Cup), the team was in high spirits, the nation still had that glow in their eyes of better things to come not only in football but in Iran as well. Then the Bahrain debacle happened, and it seems in a blink of an eye all that came to a halt, the reforms, football, Iran, all of the hope was thrown into the fire. Iran needing a win to qualify against minnows Bahrain faltered to a three to one loss.
Suddenly as the hope vanished on that day, questions arose of how could this team not only lose, but do it in the fashion they portrayed. By this I mean, the urgency, gheyrat, and energy the players had exhibited in all prior games was nowhere to be seen during this match. Soon questions in and out of Iran arose that the IRI wanted Iran to lose. This 'conspiracy' did not come out of nowhere.
Many odd instances do exist, as prior to the game, the IRI had made it clear it would not tolerate the type of celebrations it had witnessed in 1998, and then it reversed that and even set up places to celebrate. Other rumors spread that some Iranian players were bribed and/or had their families threatened if they were to win. Some players continue to this day mention that something was not right in the locker room prior to the game.
Whatever may or may not have happened the fact is that this failure also signaled in a way the end of Khatami's honeymoon with the Iranian people. The true face of the IRI clamping down on 'reforms' showed that the system will never open up as much as the people demand and deserve, for as it is known with all authoritarian regimes, if a government opens up a lot, it risk opening a box it may not be able to close shut.
The Islamic Republic in 1997 chose to open up a bit, and one saw advancements not seen before in the theocracy, in all aspects of Iran, including football (no matter how slight). Iranians were given a brief view of what Iran can be. In 2001, the beginning of the end for 'reforms' began with the crushing loss to Bahrain.
Today, football again reflects what has happened in Iran. The hard-line elements of the republic have shut off any chance of reform as they have taken the view that reform could very well end the Islamic Republic as we know it. Once again, things in the Islamic republic are done through bribes, connections, etc., and incompetent heads are chosen to run all aspects of Iranian society, politics, economics, etc., simply because of their affiliation with the regime (familial and/or regime linkage).
Iran's economy is in shambles, any movement towards equality for women has come to a standstill, and the youth face a future of joblessness and hopelessness. Drugs and prostitution are on an all time high. Essentially, the reform movement is dead, and the IRI has once again shown its true colors to the population-that their can be no change in this theocratic experiment.
Football in Iran reflects all those ills as well, the energy for improving football in Iran has died down, an incompetent, non-qualified man, Mohammad Dadkan now runs the federation simply because he is closely affiliated with the regime. Likewise, whom Dadkan appoints as coaches is based on their relationships to him. For example, close friend and highly not qualified coach, Mayeli Kohan was chosen as the Olympic teams head coach.
As a result, one of Iran's' greatest youth teams has all but lost the chance to qualify for the Olympic Games in Athens. Likewise, the national team is plagued with controversy, as some players who deserve a spot in the team are not given one simply, because they voice 'opposition' in how badly they see the federation operate-example Khodadad Azizi. Some players have become fixed in the team simply because they have influence in the federation and government-example, Ali Daei, and thus bright stars like Vahid Hashemian can't boost the national team because they can't get playing time.
The people of Iran, football fans or not knows this; the one joy in the IRI they had in football being eroded, for even football it seems is a threat to the clerics. This lack of passion and enthusiasm was seen in the Olympic qualifier game against South Korea in Tehran, a game that once would have drawn seventy to one hundred thousand people only drew fifteen to twenty thousand.
Now let us look at how the hardliners today want to run Iran's foreign policy. The “pragmatists” such as Rafsanjani and the hard-line tyrants such as Khamenie, fearing the United States are looking at possibly striking a 'grand bargain' with the Bush administration. This too is reflected in football, as again the Iranian national team in late May is coming to the United States for some friendlies-another public relations move-perhaps?
As we all know though, hope still exists in football and in Iran in general. The national team lead by competent and proven coach, Branco Ivancovic have shown thus far sign that Iran has a great shot in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup to be held in Germany. In Iran too the hope still exists that if reformers will not change the system, then the time has come finally for the people to take theirs and Iran's destiny in their hands. Whatever happens, it is clear that football in Iran will either show the path or follow.