Wednesday September 8 is a date many Iranians have noted in their diaries for months. It is not the anniversary of yet another bloody page of Iranian history, nor the day in which some prominent statesman returned or left the country. It is simply the day in which it will become clear if the Iranian National Team of football (better known as Team Melli) will be able to continue in its quest to join the elites of our planet in Germany's World Cup 2006. [See persianfootball.com]
The crucial showdown with Jordan will take place in Amman, and has been preceded by much controversy. Khatami's pronunciamento that Iran's participation in the World Cup is “a necessity” has been followed by the forced reinstatement of every football fan's favourite, but coach's conundrum, Khodadad Azizi.
Suzuki, as Azizi is affectionately called by his team mates, has been brought back in an almost desperate attempt to amend the disastrous 1-0 defeat in Tehran in the first leg of the group stage game, which could very well be the deciding factor in Iran's elimination should the game in Amman end with anything but an Iran win on Wednesday.
With the return of Vahid Hashemian fresh from the beginning of his spell as member of the prestigious Bayern Munich team, all is set for one of the best attacks Iran has had in recent memory, with the confirmed availability of marvel Ali Karimi.
Football fever has gripped Iranians worldwide. Restaurants and other public places with satellite TV at hand are hounded by hordes of desperate Team Melli fans. Iran Varzeshi, one of Iran's biggest selling sports papers, has given coverage to the efforts of many Iranians around the globe to secure a seat for what promises to be a dramatic night of football.
For two hours, we collectively forget our adopted or real nationalities and swear allegiance to a group of youngsters with names so similar to our owns. The Western girl/boyfriend, or acquaintance will receive a polite but firm “leave me alone, Team Melli is playing” message.
For many Westerners, the sight of friends preferring an unfancied game in a dusty Middle Eastern capital to the art of David Beckham or Zinedine Zidane (who play at the same time as Iran does in European qualifiers) will no doubt be unexplainable. At the same time, the American who will pass in front of one of the many Ir anian food parlours offering live coverage of the game at the uncanny hour of 5 or 6am will be astounded by the shreiks and shouts of portly Iranians agonising over live footage of men playing soccer.
For many Iranians living abroad, Team Melli is the only symbol of their once proud but now hidden nationalism. The newer generations of Iranians, especially those who have seen the light for the first time in the West, have little but the Team Melli as the link to their latent motherland. It is the Team Melli that brings Iranians together for a couple of hours and instills in them that forgetten sense of belonging to a people and a country far away but ever so dear in their hearts.
People we would rarely meet or greet during normal times become as close as lifelong friends during the 90 minutes in which we feel it a duty to clench our fists and gasp at every enemy offense and rise in triumph at the site of the ball entering the opponents' net. Mass hysteria erupts if the referee assigns a red card or worst still a penalty against “bachehaye ma”, and even the most rational minded Iranians gladly buy i nto the conspiracy theory of the day about how the same referee's services were bought by the opposing team at the last minutes, should Iran loose.
We all feel we are playing on that field and loose and win together with the Team Melli. The angry messages posted by disappointed fans after a defeat promising to boycott Team Melli forever turn out to be duds, as the passion for our team returns unabated at the following game.
From the Iranian cafes of Los Angeles to the single homes of Iranians scattered across Europe and huddled around a foreign friend's satellite, September 8th 2004 is yet another day in which our Iranian spirit will either be rinkindled or doused by Team Melli 's performance, a win of whom will inevitably make the following shout ring across the globe: Manam Irani Hastam!
Siavush Randjbar-Daemi is a second generation Iranian born in London of Iranian parents and resident in Italy. Nevertheless he prides himself in being a staunch Team Melli supporter and is a Staff Member of major Iranian football site persianfootball.com. He also writes on Middle Eastern issues for the Italian monthly Altrapagina, altrapagina.it.