When Jason Rezaian’s life changed forever, Chris DeFelice, his old college roommate, was on an elliptical trainer at the gym with CNN playing in the background.
“Washington Post journalist arrested,” shouted a chyron at the bottom of the screen, and DeFelice looked up and saw the short, balding, spectacled guy he slept 12 feet from his freshman year at Tulane University. The two hadn’t spoken in years — Rezaian transferred after his freshman year in 1994 — but his photograph was unmistakable.
DeFelice fell off his exercise machine and started calling mutual friends and college buddies.
“That’s J.J.!” he screamed into the phone. “That’s our guy!”
Rezaian was incarcerated for almost 18 months in an Iranian prison, beginning in 2014. He was freed in 2016 as part of a prisoner deal with Iran linked to the implementation of a landmark nuclear agreement.
A year and a half later, he and DeFelice have reconnected. DeFelice owns a sports bar on H Street in Northeast Washington. Iran has qualified for the World Cup. And so the two are hosting a watch party for the team’s first match, against Morocco on Friday.
“We wanted to have this party for a bunch of reasons,” Rezaian said. “No. 1: Because we can.”
Perhaps reason 1A: Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh, who also writes for The Post and was also briefly imprisoned in Iran in 2014, are great fans of Iran’s national soccer team, better known as Team Melli.
“Iranians get very passionate and sentimental about their sports,” said Yeganeh Rezaian, who grew up in Tehran. “There was not a single time that Team Melli played in an international tournament that I did not get emotional and I did not have a few tears in my eyes. Either they won and I was proud or they lost and I was disappointed.”
Team Melli, which literally means “the nation’s team,” enjoys tremendous support in Iran from a largely secular populace. And as anger mounts at elected officials and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei over international economic sanctions and domestic civil rights abuses, Iranians have grown accustomed to channeling that emotion into rooting on the national team even more, said Yeganeh Rezaian. The support for Team Melli is its own populist movement.
“People love this team, but they’ve separated it from the government,” she said. “They know what the hardships are for them just to get to international competition. There’s a feeling of no matter how bad they play, we have to support them. People are angry at the government. They say whatever the benefit of the nuclear energy is, the most immediate problem for us is that it’s causing our Team Melli a lot of problems.”
The team has periodically had to cancel friendly international matches because of those sanctions and sometimes does not have access to the most advanced equipment. Nike, for example, said last week it was prohibited from providing the Iranian team cleats because of sanctions.
Adidas makes Team Melli’s uniforms, but to avoid violating sanctions, it does not officially sponsor the team. It provides the kits at a steep discount.
“In the context of sports, Iran is a constant underdog,” Jason Rezaian said.
And yet at No. 37 in the FIFA world rankings, Iran is the best team in Asia, although still a long shot to advance to the 16-team knockout stage from the World Cup’s Group B.
The Rezaians don’t really care. They’ve also separated Team Melli from the government that caused their family so much suffering.
“I feel a deep connection to that country and to its people in spite of everything that happened to us,” said Jason Rezaian, whose father moved to the United States from Iran in 1959. “I don’t feel any enmity toward Iran or its people, and I never will. I love that place.”
“That land will always be my land,” Yegenah Rezaian said. “It will always be my home. All Iranian people will always be my fellow country people. I love my people. I am one of them.
And Friday, they’ll gather with close to 120 other expats and friends to celebrate Team Melli and the nation they hold dear.
When Iran qualified for the World Cup almost a year ago, the Rezaians convinced a friend and local Persian chef to cater a watch party. DeFelice, who runs Dirty Water, a Boston-themed sports bar in the H Street corridor, offered up his venue for the event.
On the main floor of the bar, DeFelice will serve Persian food and American beer and the Fox game broadcast. On the roof, he’s piping in the Farsi broadcast Iranians will hear in Tehran.
“I’m so excited just to see the environment in here,” he said. “I want to see their passion, their culture, their patriotism.”
And for the Rezaians, it’s a perfect way to watch the soccer tournament and reconnect with the broader Iranian-American community on their own terms.
“It’s the best way,” Jason Rezaian said, “I think, for us to be able to say, ‘We’re here.’”
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