Iran’s seasoned Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, has been a big part of the improbable story of the team’s World Cup bid and helping make Iran one of the endearing stories of this year’s championship.
As Queiroz keeps reminding us, this soccer team, and the nation it represents, are the quintessential underdogs. I, for one, am rooting for Iran to stay in the World Cup for as long as possible so the world has the chance to really ponder the problems the Iranian people are up against.
In its first match on Friday, Iran won a dramatic victory, as a player from Morocco’s team inadvertently headed the ball into his own goal during stoppage time, in the 95th minute of play. But the drama surrounding Iran’s national team had started well before the players ever took the field in their first World Cup match last week. The surprise win only amplifies that.
Ahead of the tournament’s start, American athletic shoe giant Nike announced that, because of U.S. sanctions on Iran, it wouldn’t be supplying the national team with equipment. The timing was awkward at best, shining an unwelcome light on the team when they should have been focused on game preparations.
Sometimes, though, even unfortunate exposure creates opportunity. Queiroz seems to get that better than anyone, and he continues to use it as fuel to rally his team.
“We train and we play under [bad] conditions. No pitches, no camps, no friendly games because of the sanctions. I think it’s my duty to say, ‘let our boys play football.’ They are just football players,” Queiroz said after Friday’s win. “Let them enjoy football like all the other football players in the world. They are not against nobody or against nothing. They just want to express themselves and play football.”
Meanwhile, Iranian female fans are using the major world stage to protest the ban that has kept them from attending male sporting events for nearly 40 years. And it seems to be working. At the game on Friday in St. Petersburg, FIFA allowed Iranian women to carry signs into stadiums demanding their equality. The issue features prominently in the international coverage of the event. And women are pushing the limits back in Iran, too, attending co-ed watch parties and celebrating the win despite official bans.
Women finally getting the right to attend attending men’s sports events in Iran could end up being the country’s biggest victory in this World Cup.
Iran is already participating in consecutive World Cups for the first time. If the team somehow makes it to the next round, it will provide one more opportunity to protest the ban on women spectators. FIFA President Gianni Infantino discussed the misogynistic policy with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and later said, “I was promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon.”
In the diaspora, especially in the United States, Iranians are holding game-day events throughout the country. At a time when their loved ones living inside the Islamic republic are subject to travel restrictions making it nearly impossible for them to even visit the United States, it’s an important reminder that this is a large and thriving American community, tired of being marginalized.
Many Iranians have also traveled to Russia for the tournament. Not too long ago average Iranians would be unable to leave the country to attend such an event. If they miraculously got the chance, they would do so quietly so as to draw no attention to themselves. They would fear having their picture taken doing anything remotely like having fun.
Judging from the images after Friday’s match, such concerns are a thing of the past — and not because of any grand edict from the country’s religious rulers, but because citizens themselves have been testing the limits. We should do our best to help them.
More matches will give Iranian fans around the world more chances to don their silly hats, blow those dumb horns and get shamelessly drunk in public. In short, to do what sports fans — male and female — do all over the world. But those are just the outward manifestations of their fight for normalcy.
If you believe in everyone’s right to equality and self-determination and care about seeing those principles flourish in the world, then cheer for Iran. The longer they last in this World Cup, the more we’ll be talking about the rights of all Iranians to expect equality, to express themselves and to compete on level playing fields.
Sorry, Iran. The World Cup is for women, too.
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