The value of holding on as we imagine an escape

As Iran withstands one of its greatest existential challenges, its men's national team would be forced to carry the weight of a nation’s despair on the field.

Iran at the AFC Asian Cup in Sydney, Australia 2015. Image credit Goran Has via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The highly popular Iranian National Men’s Football Team, or Team Melli as it’s known locally, has embodied the nation at critical moments throughout its history. Our players always give their all, despite the impossible odds the country faces on and off the pitch. Our first World Cup win came in 1998, Iran’s first appearance at the tournament after two decades of revolution and war, and it came against the US in Lyon, France. The US did not have a prominent football team at the time, but it had been the major international power with which we had been at odds with, and hurt by, for decades.

The Iran of 1998, under the custodianship of a very different Islamic Republic, was moving forward and prevailing over foes at home and abroad. We had just experienced a transition to what felt like a more democratic Iran, led by a popular and respected president. We were finally in a safer place. Yet, at that tournament Team Melli had to fight tooth and nail—and at the same time we, its supporters, knew that our place in the world was also precarious.

Still, Team Melli carried our optimism to a win. I, an adolescent, remember for the first time seeing the street burst with joy—pedestrians giving out orange flavored candy, cardamom cake and red carnations as they danced to music blasting from cars and buses that had stopped across the road. Iran of the 1990s was a country that could afford to eat—and celebrate. In the following years, members of the team enjoyed the perks of a celebrity life in Tehran that would see them drive luxury cars, own high-end restaurants and jewelry stores, and partake in the country’s most exclusive art auctions. Team Melli’s footballers, like Ali Daie, Iran’s most acclaimed striker, were simultaneously global jet setters and national icons.

The challenge for Team Melli in 2022, after securing its spot in the World Cup for the third consecutive time, was to finally reach the knockout stage. The draw for this year’s Cup took place in April. We were excited at the result as Iran was placed in Group B with England, the US and Wales. We’d won against the US before, and we fancied our chances against Wales, so we believed we had a good chance of securing a spot as one of the two qualifying teams from the group, even if we lost to England.

On paper, Iran should have excelled, it had 20 years to prepare, but football is political exactly because like politics, it is unapologetic and unfair. Way before the games began, Team Melli was at a disadvantage due to challenges imposed on it by the policies of the US government. For more than 40 years, Iran has been under a US-led economic blockade, broadly called sanctions. They have intensified decade after decade to a point where today, one in three Iranians live below the poverty line. Sanctions are known to roll back the development of the countries they target. The Iran of today is on the brink of malnourishment. Sanctions—an economic war—have suffocated our pathways to the global financial markets. Iran can’t legally sell oil—its primary source of revenue, nor can it transfer money, buy goods or purchase marine insurance for its cargo ships. Sanctions have forced Iran into a decade-long recession, shutting down manufacturing plants, causing soaring unemployment, chronic pharmaceutical and food shortages and skyrocketing inflation. The aim of sanctions, we are told, is to suffocate an enemy state—the Islamic Republic of Iran—and force it, in no certain terms, to capitulate, to go so far as to cause enough pain to force a change in behavior. But no matter how Iranians behave, and how many Iranians are hurt in the process, the US continues to sanction us, sending our country deeper into crisis.

Football, Iran’s most popular sport, would always remain funded, but it would still be impacted by sanctions in countless ways. Both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation have blocked Iran’s money. Iranian leagues have no access to VAR, the computerized video assistant now utilized in many parts of the world, and are thus excluded from the ways in which it has changed the game. Going into the 2022 World Cup, Team Melli’s preparation would be very different compared to other teams. The soaring devaluation of national currency meant less financial resources for preparations. Cut off from the global financial system, Team Melli even had trouble paying for amenities when they had to play abroad. The players complained about not having jerseys and gear.

But Team Melli wouldn’t just take the blow of economic sanctions, it would also have to endure a smear campaign and calls for boycott. The sanctions had long been supported and bolstered by a group of diaspora Iranians, who after fleeing, hoped to eventually strangulate the Islamic Republic of Iran, and push it out of existence. This group of former Iranian nationals, now living in the Global North, with access to the biggest media platforms, claim to want an end to the regime suffocating the people of Iran. They care deeply for the tyranny imposed on Iranians by the Iranian political establishment, like mass arrests, a clampdown on women’s rights, or execution of minors, but they have no qualms with, and even encourage, the brutality of US policy against us.

Before the World Cup, they led a campaign to boycott Team Melli. They canceled Iran’s friendly with Canada and petitioned FIFA to eliminate Iran for being the team of the “regime.” Such activists would never blame the US Men’s team for the Iraq War, mass incarceration or police shootings, but decided to place that same burden on Iranian players. Their effort had no popular base inside Iran and Team Melli continued to prepare quietly. Yet to those of us closely watching the sanction regime, we were alarmed by the way it was encroaching on all remaining areas of Iranian life. We were witnessing new ways it could act to strangulate Iran, even denying us the joy of watching a game, always legitimizing itself by claiming to hit the state and not the nation. Iranians had thus far rejected it precisely because they could see that it was out to cause us pain.

Then came a cataclysmic shift. Nationwide protests erupted in September 2022 after Mahsa Amini died while in police custody over what was deemed improper veiling—a maxi shirt and long linen head covering. Nothing in Iran, including its national football team, would ever be the same again. Flames of protest that were long in the making ignited throughout the country.

In recent years, the material life of Iranians has drastically declined, the state has gotten more coercive and inept, and the periphery has dried out under extreme weather patterns. We have had no representative elections since 2017, and there have been wide deliberate crackdowns on civil liberties and internet access. The Iranian state, in its current formation, shows no clear understanding of the many ways sanctions have depleted our society. Iran’s youth unemployment rate stands at 27%, annual inflation at more than 40%, and GDP growth at negative to zero. Instead of changing direction, the establishment has dug further in its positions, shaking off moderate leaders, hardening, and appearing less concerned by popular legitimacy. It can offer no vision leading us into less despairing futures. Mahsa’s death first unleashed grief and then inconsolable rage and unrest on the streets.

According to Iran’s National Security Council, 200 people have died in the protests so far, although the numbers are contested—IRGC General Hajizadeh has put the number at “more than 300.” This time around, the deceased have faces that are widely shared. Many are children or young adults who die in unexplained circumstances where police and plain clothed security forces, now a formidable site across Iranian cities, are the most obvious culprits. Victims include 9-year-old Kian with smooth milk chubby cheeks and black hair from southwest Iran who is captured on video showing his homemade propeller boat. Each death sends us through a new shockwave of hurt and pain. Shaken by new unrest, the Iranian nation has reached a point of rupture. Its continuation will depend on how peacefully the Iranian people can transition themselves to a safer place. It is unclear if the political establishment might eventually make concessions, when forced, and how the Iranians can make use of that moment when it finally arrives. A great transition awaits. Our discontent needs to pressure political structures to change and to keep Iran whole at the same time—to avoid worst case outcomes that will lead to the country’s disintegration.

Athletes, by virtue of playing under the flag, embody the aspirations of state and nation as one entity. National sports can become, in good times, a practice in being “one.” That is exactly what the sanctions regime was targeting when they promoted boycott, and what Iranians had rejected. But that space we’d long nurtured inside Iran, to come together at key moments, to stand beneath the flag metaphorically and literally, is being wiped away, and so is the vision that we might be able to continue to co-exist at all. The voice of sanction supporters, post-Mahsa, has gained momentum inside Iran, feeding on people’s rage. The Islamic Republic of Iran has largely lost the global media war because it has persistently cracked down on independent media, seeing it as a threat to its base. Now, the voice of sanctions supporters outside Iran, most prominent through social media and the Saudi funded satellite channel Iran International, has become the most accessible dissident voice for Iranians—and this voice would go after Team Melli again.

Team Melli’s athletes are young, social media savvy and had expressed condolences to Iranians for recent deaths, but they were accused of complicity in the killing of protesters anyway. Videos of team members visiting the president before leaving for the games in Qatar led an unprecedented barrage of hate against them. Team Melli had always visited presidents, and had no say in the matter. Narmila Fathi, a former athlete on the national women’s futsal team reminded her followers on Instagram of this, but to no avail. The players were depicted with blood flowing from their hands as they held the decapitated heads of children. They were called “evil bastards.” They were bombed with questions about Iran’s unrest by Western journalists in Qatar. The voice, unjustly casting them as agents of state violence, was gaining momentum. Eventually, they would be blasted for everything from supporting the protestors to not supporting the protesters (or not supporting them enough), for singing the national anthem to not singing it. Football forces a way out of everyday life and a way into it. It is a manifestation of war, victory, and banishment. For Team Melli, it was a simulation of the chaos in which Iran finds itself.

Most people I knew offline still supported the team but could no longer deny the rift. My 27-year-old cousin, with whom I’d watched the 2018 game with in Tehran cafes, said he didn’t care to watch a team playing for the “Islamic Republic.” The time to casually, playfully, and hopefully watch our country’s team at a cafe was behind us. We would watch the first game, against England, feeling more alienated than ever before.

Minutes in, the Iranian goalkeeper, Alireza Beiravand, had a head to head collision with center-back Majid Hosseini. Blood oozed from his face as he was carried out on a stretcher after trying, too hard, to stay in the game. His nose was broken, as was the team. Their performance was called “shambolic.” To many of us fans, the resulting 6-2 loss was not as humiliating as the screams of “bisharaf” (dishonorable) that shook the stadium at moments in the game, or screams of joy we heard from the house next door after. That splitting apart of which we were so afraid, the undoing that would see Iranians glad to have their side defeated, was near. We could hear it. It held us down as if beneath steel blades. It would be amplified on social media. Team Melli, as a standing for our collective, was in pieces.

I couldn’t bear to watch another disaster unfold on the pitch, and decided to avoid the second game with Wales. I was, however, following the result on Twitter. To my complete surprise, Team Melli held its ground. I scurried back to the television, almost able to enjoy the match after seeing them play with more confidence—football after all wasn’t just about agony but also a beautiful game. At 98 minutes, Rouzbeh Cheshmi scored to put Iran in the lead. Minutes later, only seconds before the end of the game, full-back Ramin Rezaian galloped from the midfield line to stand in the center of the box, and then kicked the ball into the goal again. Rezaian just stood there, laughing and crying at the same time. His copper gold mohawk curls and sharp features giving him the look of a truly distraught anime figure, part of his face twisted in horror and the other euphoric, a face almost physically impossible to make. Team Melli had held together the entire game, and had been given a moment to redeem itself near the very end. Rezaian’s expression of hope and bewilderment became ours. I heard celebration and cheers from neighbors, then, minutes later we could see people dancing on our street, the very sight of protests in recent weeks. Within hours, on Twitter, there were videos of security forces dancing. One video was recorded in northwest Iran’s city of Urumieh where music blasted from a monstrous anti-riot vehicle as people and police swayed in a nightly street parade. Iran was depicting a surreal painting where forces completely at odds with one another, stuck in a perpetual daily war, came to rejoice, only if for a moment.

The day after, following weeks of sour gray skies, there was some rain. The air cleared. The heightened mood of fatigue and distress on the metro felt lighter. Iran’s popular sports dailies ran with the photo of Rezaian and the headline: “A nation broken in tears.” The writer Mehdi Yazdani Khorram posted a photo of Ali Qolizadeh, the team forward, crying at the end of the game, and wrote “we are the nation that must learn to exist on the precipice of sorrow and joy at the same time.” The sociologist Mohammad Fazeli tweeted: “Dear Team Melli, in these days of darkness, we owe you this moment of lightness and pride.” Team Melli had played a good game while showing the full breadth of feeling that came with being Iranian. It had held together long enough to make use of opportunities that came. It had embodied our sorrows, joys, and hopes, and we rejoiced, albeit more mutedly than ever before. My mother’s prayer group on Telegram, which had previously discussed and rejected an idea to get together and pray for the team, now changed their opinion. The 44 women agreed to divide up, and recite the entire Quran for the final match against the United States. “We’re praying for the respite of a nation” they declared. Iran only needed an equalizer to get to the knockout round, but that “only” carried the weight of the past twenty years.

Team Melli went into the third match—the most stressful one I’ve ever seen—fazed. The US team was pounding our goal and we knew they’d eventually get one in, and then our side would implode again. Cold sweat poured down my hands. The spirit we’d seen rekindled in the second game couldn’t emerge under so much anxiety. The Iranian players wanted none of it. They could barely hold on to the ball. The Americans pushed through to score a goal at 38 minutes. Iran’s mood gradually eased and our players had more control of the game in the second half, but that wasn’t enough. The US was the better team. We lost 1-0. And there again, even louder, was the sound of joyous screams. Through winning and showing vulnerability, Team Melli could wash over the divide. But not in losing. Within minutes I heard cars honking in celebration. One man, 27-year-old Mehran Sammak, the childhood teammate of Team Melli’s midfielder Saeed Ezatollahi, was allegedly shot dead honking his horn in happiness over the defeat in northern Iran. Team Melli had played with the weight of the world on its shoulders, triumphed at moments, lost gracefully at others, but the rift was now wide open and even taking lives.

Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors, and long-time Asian rivals, are reasserting themselves as major international teams. Saudi Arabia won against Argentina, Japan triumphed over Spain, and South Korea beat Portugal. Three countries from Asia have made the knockout round for the first time in history. Our neighbor Qatar is hosting the World Cup. Iranians feel excluded not only from Asia’s leap in football but its reassertion as a major global player. Team Melli, as honorable as their performance was, could not undo our shared feeling of spinning down in endless vertigo.

What Team Melli’s performance did do, was show us the value of trying to hold on as we imagine an escape. The Iran of this moment is not preoccupied with economic development or football glory. We are instead in a historical juncture trying to envision ways for the survival, and for the transformation of the Iranian nation-state. We do not have much time, but we cannot overcome this challenge without remembering Ramin Rezaian’s face, and that a group fought 100 minutes for it to manifest. The team, led by coach Carol Quieroz (who was born in Mozambique, and noted for coaching a slew of African teams as well) who understood Iran’s predicaments, gave us a moment where we imagined ourselves a collective again, in tears for all that has been lost and in celebration of our ability to pull through to find a way. Iranian civilization will survive only so long as it embodies this same wisdom of continuation.

Further Reading


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