- The Iranian soccer team faces many difficulties on the road to the World Cup in Moscow.
- How did the nuclear deal affect the team’s preparations, even before the United States pulled out of the agreement?
- What part did Israel play in the selection of the Iranian World Cup team?
This year, Iran is competing for the fifth time in the World Cup soccer tournament, due to open on June 14, 2018, in Moscow. The first time was during the reign of the Shah, when the World Cup was held in Argentina in 1978. Iran was then the toughest team in Asia, and it even played against Israel in a historic game. One of the policies of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was to put Iranian teams on the map of world sport. Shah Pahlavi personally used to play soccer, and he engaged in many different and varied kinds of sport, showing much prowess in some of its toughest fields.
The Shah’s heir, Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi, was interested in soccer from his childhood, and he even became a player. He opened the Asian soccer games in 1974 when they were hosted with great pomp in Iran.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, it would take another 20 years before the Islamic Republic of Iran managed to qualify to compete in another World Cup tournament – during the presidency of the comparatively moderate, pragmatic Mohammad Khatami. Then, there were many attempts to bring Iran closer to the United States during Bill Clinton’s administration. At the World Cup, which took place in France in 1998, the game between Iran and the United States on June 21, 1998 was extremely gripping. It ended with the Americans losing 1:2. The Asian Football Confederation called the game between Iran and the United States “the most political game,” but it went down in history with other names, such as “the match of the century,” or the “mother of all games.”
The third time Iran competed in the World Cup was in 2006 in Germany, and it competed again eight years later when it qualified for the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Over the past year, Iran was one of the first countries in the world to qualify and secure its place in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. However, its joy was premature because this was just the beginning of many troubles that beset the team’s preparation for the World Cup tournament.
The Portuguese Soccer Coach
Many in Iran believe that the team’s selection for the tournament twice in a row, in 2014 and now in 2018, is thanks to Carlos Queiroz, the legendary Portuguese coach, who trained the Iranian team seven years ago. He came across many difficulties and obstacles in his professional work in Iran and tried more than once to quit his job. However, due to the respect that he gained among the Iranian people, the regime was compelled to extend his contract, and he has become the longest-serving coach of the Iranian team since the team was first established 97 years ago.
However, Carlos Queiroz recently announced that after the World Cup in 2018, he would leave Iran and never return. Why?
The chaos in the rate of the dollar against the Iranian rial, already months before the United States pulled out of the nuclear deal, and the drop in value of 100 percent or more in Iranian currency rates have badly affected Iran’s payments to Carlos Queiroz and the other foreign coaches working in the country. (Many articles on this have appeared in the Iranian media.) However, with the return of U.S. sanctions on the horizon, many teams around the world have refused to play friendly matches against Iran even though nothing has been outwardly said. However, the Iranians have complained through the media that they have become the “orphans” or stepchildren of the World Cup tournament in Russia. Not only have many famous teams around the world not played against them in friendly matches over the past few weeks or in qualifier matches for the World Cup, but with three weeks to go before the opening of the tournament in Russia, the Greek and Kosovan teams also cancelled their friendly games against Iran. This caused Iran to complain to FIFA about Greece, but the Iranians were also very insulted when Libya and even Syria cancelled their friendlies against Iran.1
No Shoes … and Only Undershirts for the Iranian Team
Two weeks before the World Cup, Nike announced that it would not supply shoes for the Iranian team. Nike claimed that it does not have any sponsorship contract with the Iranian team or any of its players. However, Iranian sports correspondents report that in contrast to Nike’s “dry” announcement, the sports giant is in reality boycotting the Iranian team out of fear of U.S. sanctions. At the same time, Nike is providing sports footwear to 60 percent of the World Cup teams. Until now, the players in the Iranian team have appeared with Nike shoes, and they have said that they are used to playing on the field in this particular brand of footwear. Sports magazines in Iran already know who to blame for the possible failure of their team.2
But it’s not only about shoes. After much effort, Iran managed to secure a contract with Adidas to prepare the team’s uniform shirt. However, Iranians, even at ministerial level, complained that the country would have to be satisfied with the simplest white tunic, with no symbols, drawings, or anything else to catch the eye. The Iranian media and the fans crying about this are making humiliating comparisons between the simple Iranian shirt and the more attractive uniforms of the other teams. The Iranian media refers to the issue as “the scandal of the underclothes” and “the undershirts.”
Fans are asking, “Is this the World Cup uniform or an undershirt?” They are blaming sports officials for not managing to persuade Adidas to provide a more respectable or attractive shirt for the Iranian players.
Iranian sports correspondents and reporters on significant Farsi channels around the world (such as the BBC Persian service and Manoto, which broadcasts from London to Iran and across the globe) have stated that not a single major sporting goods company has prepared any sports product with Iran’s name on it out of fear of U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s Lack of Resources
For the first round, Iran has been placed in a particularly tough group. Apart from Morocco, Iran has to play against two soccer giants: Spain and Portugal. (Additionally, Iran’s coach is from Portugal, and many Iranians claim that it is not possible for Carlos Queiroz to work against his home country for the benefit of Iran.)
The Iranian media has been observing the Moroccan team, and it has made many comparisons between the generous resources that the King and the Moroccan government have allocated to their national team, while the Iranian team has gone through a hard time. No one in the country seriously supports their national team, and even the coach has announced that he will leave Iran after the World Cup games.
The Iranian media also referred to Saudi Arabia’s generous support for its national team before the World Cup, and it made a comparison between the fantasy conditions of the Saudi team and the shameful conditions of the Iranian team.
Only Turkey has cheered the Iranians slightly on the eve of the World Cup (which starts on June 14, 2018). Over the past few days, Turkey has offered professional help to the Iranian team, allowing it to make its final preparations in the quality sports stadiums in Turkey. According to the BBC’s Persian service, the Turkish aid was offered at the last minute, apparently a direct order from President Erdogan.
The dollar rate, which is close to 70,000 rials, makes it impossible for most Iranians or their soccer fans to travel to Russia to cheer on the Iranian team. In fact, over the past few months, Iranian trips abroad have almost stopped due to the astronomical dollar rate. Any Iranian citizen who approaches a money changer to acquire dollars is arrested on the spot and taken to jail. Apparently, only a small group of Iranian exiles in Europe or Iranians living in Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union will be among the supporters of the Iranian team in its first games at the tournament.
Israel and the Iranian Team?
The World Cup tournament is still a distant dream for Israel, which, as usual, did not qualify. Yet Israel was, involuntarily, a factor in the composition of the Iranian team in the qualifiers for the World Cup. Masoud Shojaei, the captain of the Iranian national team and also a player in the Greek team Panionios, played for his team against Maccabi Tel Aviv last year in a match that took place in Greece. When the rematch in Tel Aviv took place, he took “ill” (it is better to be “ill” in these situations) and did not join his team.
Carlos Queiroz, the coach of the Iranian team, was compelled to quietly remove Shojaei from the team for several months. (Queiroz did not select Shojaei for the team for the most recent games), and many players on the team did not dare to show their support for their captain, who remained in Greece feeling very bitter. Shojaei missed most of the most qualifiers and preparations. Many people said that he was paying the heavy price for asking President Rouhani in a photographed meeting to act as soon as possible to allow Iranian women to enter sports stadiums to be able to watch soccer matches. Even though Rouhani and the previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were in favor of letting women into sports stadiums, senior clerics make an uproar every time the issue is raised and they will not allow it. Meanwhile, Iran’s women’s soccer team (or more accurately, its Futsal team, which is a variation of soccer with only five players per team and played indoors) took the Asian championship in June 2018. When Masoud Shojaei published a very emotional letter in which he wrote that he is loyal to Iran and was forced to play against the Israeli team, a lot of popular pressure was put on Queiroz to put Shojaei back on the final lineup. Shojaei has never expressed regret for playing against Israel and has even asked sports officials to allow matches between Iran and Israel.
On the fringes of the World Cup tournament, it should be noted that the Kurds in Iran are very angry that two young, extremely talented Kurdish players who play in the Iranian team were for some strange reason not included in the World Cup lineup. They claim that Carlos Queiroz was forced to give into pressure from Shiite elements in Iran, even though many also say that Queiroz’s decision was purely professional.
Iran’s first game in the World Cup in the “Killer Group” will take place on June 15, 2018, against Morocco in Sochi. Five days later, it will appear against Spain in Kazan, and its match against Portugal a week later will take place in Saransk. Then, it will become apparent whether, despite all of its many difficulties, it will manage to compete in the second round of the World Cup or not.
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