Alarm clocks are being set, coffee is being brewed and well-crafted excuses are being sent to puzzled bosses. Today, the Iranian National Football Team will be playing the first game of the final round of Wold Cup qualifiers, after a couple of close shaves in the preliminary stages that nearly provoked a very early elimination from the Qualification Tournament.
The rules are hideously simple: play a round robin tournament with three other teams, and get a ticket to World Cup 2006 Germany if you finish in the top two. No other opponent could have made the first game more symbolic than Bahrain, a small island state forever etched into the memories of long suffering Team Melli fans for that cursed evening of October 26 2001.
On that day, with only the tighest of wins needed to book a place amongst the world's football elite, Team Melli succumbed to an unexplainable 3-1 defeat that ultimately cost Iran the chance of a second successive appearance in the world's biggest football festival. Conspiracy theories abounded, for it was hard to understand how a hitherto winning team gave a very tame and subdued performance.
Three and a half years later, Team Melli will set foot in the very same stadium, set to wash away the bitter memories of that night and to define the pace for the encounters to come. The team has been largely overhauled, and the old guard (mainly consisting of veteran record breaker Ali Daei and talismanic midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia) have been flanked by dazzling young prospects.
These include teenager Hossein Kaabi and Bundesliga star Fereydoun Zandi, of German mother and Iranian father, who finally decided to join Team Melli despite having a rudimentary command of spoken Farsi. In between, a litany of top class players, such as Asian Player of the Year Ali Karimi and Bayern Munich marksman Vahid Hashemian constitute a very strong outfit.
The emotional outpour of joy and support that follows every Team Melli trip abroad was echoed in Manama, where Iranian residents turned out in droves to welcome the team. Across the world, where kickoff often occurs at uncanny hours of early am or late pm, fans are getting ready in hectic, but organised, reunions that once again make us all saviour the sense of Iranian identity many of us mask in ordinary life, succumbing to the mores of our country of residence.
Across the Internet, football forums are buzzing with the latest rumours and speculation, providing solace to the many die-hard fans who cannot fall asleep in the last hours preceding the game.
As with anything in the Middle East, the is game has an importance that goes beyond the mere sporting one. Bahrain is at the forefront of efforts to change of the Persian Gulf in Arabian Gulf, thus sparking off a cultural confrontation that has shaken the fragile relationship between Iran and the Arab world. A win of an Iranian sporting outfit against an Arab is always a point of pride, a victory against an enemy of old that has never wished the prosperity of the Iranian people or Nation.
In pretty much the same way the French revile the English, the Iranian loath the Arabs and the same sentiment is echoed viceversa. The much dreaded footage of the Bahraini players performing a lap of honour with the Saudi flag right after Iran's mind numbing defeat in 2001 was, besides being an act of sheer sporting dishonesty, an image that can be only wiped away with a convincing win tomorrow.
The Bahraini authorities have upped the ante of the psychological war by forbidding their own citizens to raise Iranian flags during the game and drastically increasing the cost of the ticket for Iranian fans.
Bahrain-Iran is only the first of a series of six games: it is, however, a crucial one. The star-studded Iranian team should deliver a blow to the ghosts of the past, and at the same time provide a sense of belief to its millions of adoring but suffering fans, who want nothing but a clear win tfrom their beloved Team Melli.