Team Melli's big test
Bahrain-Iran is only the first of a series
of six games: it is, however, a crucial one
February 9, 2005
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
On that day, with only the tighest of wins needed to book a
place amongst the world's football elite, Team Melli succumbed
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
Three and a half years later, Team Melli will set foot in
same stadium, set to wash away the bitter memories of that
night and to define the pace for the encounters to come. The
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
In between, a litany of top class players, such as Asian
Player of the Year Ali Karimi and Bayern Munich marksman
a very strong outfit.
The emotional outpour of joy and support that follows
every Team Melli trip abroad was echoed in Manama, where
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
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
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.
Siavush Randjbar-Daemi is one of the editors of PersianFootball.com.