Iran: Sleeping Giant Ready to Awaken on the Biggest Stage?

Football in the Islamic Republic is a national obsession, but not without obstacles to overcome. Could a World Cup on the back doorstep be the catalyst for re-emergence?  

By Nick Boffa

As football around the world gets going again after COVID-interrupted seasons, much of the world has re-ignited their love affair with international football following a highly successful European Championship (the Euros). The tournament, staged across multiple European cities in a novel response to travelling restrictions and pandemic-induced anxiety, saw Italy emerge as winners yet also left many fans with a vivid reminder of everything great about the international game. The shambolic episode of the unsuccessful breakaway by several European clubs to form a “Super League” left legions of football lovers with a sour taste in the mouth. The Euros proved just the tonic and simultaneously left many of us palpably excited for the next iteration of the world’s greatest sporting event – the FIFA World Cup.

The tournament is usually a vehicle for introducing the average fan to some of the more exotic footballing cultures. However, for many nations, it is a chance to showcase a new generation of footballing talent and impress on the world what those at home have always proclaimed – we are a powerhouse, you just don’t know it yet. One suspects this could be applicable to Iran, without a doubt one of Asia’s most dominant footballing nations. Although no strangers to the centrepiece of world football, Iran has not mounted a serious challenge in recent tournaments. Iran has a proud footballing history and it’s best to get loosely acquainted with it to understand the use of the term “sleeping giant” in this case.

Iran’s national team, known in the country as Team Melli, is a three-time Asian Cup winner. Their record at the World Cup however is less impressive; Iran has qualified five times yet has never progressed beyond the group stages. The Iranians did progress to the quarterfinals of the Olympics tournament in 1976 and herein lies the pattern – the fortunes of the national team appear to have changed markedly, like many aspects of life in Iran, following the revolution in 1979. During the 1980s Iran was engulfed in a devastating conflict with neighbouring Iraq and naturally, football in the country suffered tremendously (Iran did not feature at consecutive World Cups for the duration of the conflict). The war took an enormous toll on both nations over the best part of the decade and life, along with football in Iran, changed irrevocably. More recently, Iran has been subject to severe economic sanctions imposed largely by the US in response to alleged development of nuclear weapons. This isn’t a political essay but – suffice to say – these sanctions have constricted Iran economically and football in the country has felt the knock-on effects.

Team Melli before a recent match. Image: Iranian Football Federation

Closer to home, Australian football lovers will no doubt have painful memories of Iran, as Team Melli qualified for the 1998 World Cup at the expense of the Socceroos in front of a full house at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Both legs ended in draws, yet Iran went through on the away goals rule as Australia was left to rue a squandered lead. International audiences may be familiar with Iranian icon and talismanic striker, Ali Daei, whose record of 109 international goals was recently shattered by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, to much fanfare. However, despite a long history of success and passionate support, Iranian football is facing some serious challenges.

Iran has consistently clashed with FIFA over strict rules regarding female attendance at stadiums, despite football being a national obsession for all Iranians regardless of gender. Women were allowed to enter the famed Azadi Stadium in Tehran for the 2019 qualifier against Cambodia in a landmark decision by the authorities – the first time this has been allowed in 40 years. The decision came during the tenure of former President Hassan Rouhani, viewed as a reformist in Iran, who has since been replaced by the more conservative Ebrahim Raisi. Given the disruption to football due to the pandemic, it’s difficult to ascertain whether this permission continues to be granted to female fans. The situation gained international attention via the 2006 film Offside by Jafar Panahi (although filmed in Iran, the showing of the film was banned in the country).

In 2019, female fans were allowed to attend a World Cup qualifier at the famous Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

It is not the only time that religion and football have clashed in a country dedicated to both. In October 2016, Iran was scheduled to play South Korea in Tehran in a crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier. The match fell over tasua, one of the most important days of mourning in the Shia calendar. Iranian clerics were explicit in their view that any cheering or celebrations on the day would have been morally outrageous and completely unacceptable. Top clerics in Iran openly criticised then-President Rouhani (a somewhat growing trend) for not demanding the re-scheduling of the match and what conservatives in Iran saw as their president pandering to the West. Iran went on to win the match 1-0 in a packed Azadi Stadium with almost the entire crowd dressed in black as a show of traditional mourning required of Shias during tasua. Regional rivalries have at times transcended politics and manifested themselves in football, namely the intense vying for influence in the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia. That conflict has recently absorbed football, most notably during a match between Saudi side Al-Hilal and Iran’s Persepolis in Tehran. Saudi fans and team staff allege they were pelted by the Iranian crowd and as a result, Saudi teams have now refused to play matches in Iran. The Asia Football Confederation (AFC) is understandably worried about a feud that could be potentially devastating for AFC Champions League fixtures.

For all the unique challenges facing Iranian football, both domestically and internationally, the country is a deep pool of opportunity. For all the misconceptions about Iran, one fact remains undisputed and immediately obvious on the ground in the country – Iranians love football – big time. For those reading this with raised eyebrows, bear in mind that the Azadi Stadium in Tehran is the fourth biggest in the world with a capacity of over 100,000.

Azadi Stadium in Tehran has a crowd capacity in excess of 100, 000 spectators.

Despite the crippling effects of the aforementioned economic sanctions imposed on Iran, the Persian Pro League (PPL) is currently ranked as the third best league in Asia and is worth in excess of $100 million in TV rights ($USD). It’s no surprise that businesses from every sector are scrambling to win market share in a land of 80 million new consumers and this fact isn’t lost on Iranian football powerbrokers, with the Iranian FA understood to be quietly licking their lips at the prospects of increased sponsorship revenues and bumper TV rights deals. The prospect of a more lucrative TV rights deal for the PPL is bolstered by the existence of a passionate, proud and vocal Iranian diaspora. It’s estimated that 5 million Iranians live abroad with huge communities in Europe, Canada, Australia, the United States and Gulf states such as Dubai (Iranian population of 300,000 in 2011) and particulrly Los Angeles, which is home to a vibrant community of around 100,000 Iranians, earning the Westwood area the moniker of “Tehrangeles”.

Meanwhile, on the international stage, Iran is overcoming a shaky start in World Cup qualifying – they currently top their group under Croatian Dragan Skočić after dismissing Belgian Marc Wilmots following poor results. Foreign fans would undoubtedly be familiar with some of their emerging talents plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues. This list is headlined by a wealth of attacking talent in Sardar Azmoun (Zenit) and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who showed he was capable of the spectacular during a spell with Brighton in the Premier League (he’s now with Feyenoord).

Premier League audiences will be familiar with the work of mercurial Iranian attacker, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, now with Feyenoord.

Mehdi Taremi also continues to excel in Portugal with FC Porto including a recent goal against Liverpool and this magnificent finish. A number of other mainstays in the national team are also playing in European leagues across Greece, the Netherlands, Belgium and Scandinavia, but the PPL is well represented through young talent including defender Omid Noorafkan. Iranian fans are palpably excited by the next generation too, namely the still uncapped Mohamed Soltani Mehr, a 22 year-old midfielder who featured in the “Next Gen Top 50 Talents” by The Guardian in 2016. Whilst the youngster hasn’t hit the heights as quickly as many predicted, he still offers a glimpse of the depth of Iranian talent looking to make their mark with the national side. As qualifying progresses, Iran would be quietly frothing in anticipation of the 2022 tournament, which, for the first time, is set to be played in their own proverbial backyard – just across the Persian Gulf in Qatar.

One suspects Iran might view this World Cup as their golden opportunity to stake a claim among the heavyweights of world football.    

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