Iran won’t win the World Cup in 2018. The country’s team is decent, but not great. And the impediments it currently faces from the international community — including both governments and corporations — make its uphill battle for victory even more daunting.
As far as public opinion is concerned, though, Iran’s team, known as “Team Melli” to its countrymen, is already scoring points. And that’s because, already an obvious underdog, it now finds itself facing extra problems from an American corporate giant.
Last week, the American shoe company Nike announced it would not be providing Iranian players with equipment. “U.S. sanctions mean that, as a U.S. company, Nike cannot supply shoes to players in the Iranian national team at this time,” a company statement said. “Sanctions applicable to Nike have been in place for many years and are enforceable by law.”
Really? Erich Ferrari, a Washington lawyer who specializes in sanctions, tells me it’s not quite that simple.
Legally, he says, Nike is correct. He explains, however, that the company could have easily applied for a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which oversees sanctions implementation and enforcement. “They have a long history of granting authorizations so as to not impede international sports competitions. Under the current administration, OFAC has been very strict in its licensing policy, but it still seems like something that should have been licensed,” Ferrari said.
Nike’s decision and its awkward announcement have arguably contravened the spirit of the sanctions by directly penalizing the athletes’ ability to compete. That reinforces the perception that Iran’s athletes are being unfairly ostracized at an event where they should have the same advantages as competitors from other countries.
This isn’t to imply that sports have nothing to do with politics. But surely the point of sanctions is not to penalize peaceful competition. Again, that’s precisely why OFAC has given waivers in many such cases in the past.
Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, has harshly criticized Nike’s decision, yesterday demanding an apology for his team.
“My duty is to create happiness, fun and entertainment for the people,” said Queiroz, who is Portuguese, during a recent interview with the British edition of GQ. “Iran is a country rich in tradition and thousands of years of history. It’s just a pity that the perception of Iran around the world is not the right or real one, nor the one the Iranian people deserve.”
Nike’s move is also already having the effect of rallying support around the Iranian national team. It helps that Queiroz is one of the best-known figures in the international soccer community, and has used his influence to lobby for Iran’s team since he took over its coaching duties.
“I’ve never, in all my career, seen players deliver so much after receiving so little as I have with these Iran boys,” Queiroz said.
A combination of political tensions and travel restrictions has already limited Iran’s ability to play in friendly games ahead of the World Cup.
“We struggle to travel, to have training camps, to bring opponents, to buy equipment,” Queiroz said. “Even buying shirts is a challenge, but these challenges helped me fall in love with Iran. These difficulties become a source of inspiration to the people, it makes them more united, to fight for their country. These boys deserve a smile from the rest of the world.”
Before joining Iran, Queiroz had a long career coaching some of the world’s most recognizable players, including Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.
Yet, in 2011, he chose to accept a job offer in Tehran. His tenure has been controversial, but he has stuck by his team and the country’s fans.
It’s the challenges that make Iran so endearing, he says, and I have no doubt he’s right. Nike’s decision, on the other hand, just makes it look like another unfeeling corporate monolith.
The World Cup, one of the world’s biggest sporting events, is supposed to be a celebration of competition. But fans of Iranian soccer — and the team itself — are getting a very different message: Don’t even try to leave the politics at home, because it will follow you everywhere.