Bill Saporito is an editor at large at Inc.
When the United States’ national team took the field against Iran in the 1998 World Cup in France, players from both teams posed together for a pregame portrait. It was a gesture of sportsmanship over politics. The Americans would, alas, extend that diplomacy too far in the actual match, conceding two goals in a dismal 2-1 defeat.
Jubilant Iranians filled the streets of Lyon that evening — a number of whom, I discovered, turned out to be expats living in Los Angeles, sometimes called Tehrangeles.
Their happiness that night had another dimension. To many Iranians, the win was a victory over Iran’s theocratic regime, which has little use for sport, or the joy it can bring to people.
Team Melli, as Iran’s squad is known, represents far more than football within that country. It is a symbol of what life could — and should — be all about. “A soccer match in Iran isn’t like one anywhere else on the planet,” said Dan Gaspar, an American who was part of the Iranian coaching staff for several years. Because Iranians are not allowed to sing and dance in public, he added, “when they come into the stadium, it’s a sanctuary for them.”
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As history would have it, Iran faces the United States on Nov. 29 in Qatar, and the setting will be a lot different. At home, Iran is violently trying to suppress an uprising led by women who are pursuing human rights in daily protests around the country. The demonstrations have followed the murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the notorious “morality police” for the alleged crime of not properly covering her hair. In its foreign policy, Iran is supplying Russia with self-detonating drones, the main purpose of which is to terrorize civilians in Ukraine and destroy critical infrastructure such as electrical and water supplies.
A soccer ball can’t be a peacemaker, but geopolitics cannot be ignored. Russia was booted from the competition shortly after its brutal invasion of Ukraine. Recently, human rights organizations such as Open Stadiums have been calling for FIFA, soccer’s ruling body, to disqualify Iran on the same basis that it red-carded Russia.
That’s warranted but unlikely. FIFA’s own charter says it “helps protect those who advocate respect for human rights associated with its activities.” But as the Iranian regime steps up arrests of activists, artists, academics and students who challenge its authority, soccer’s supreme rulers are as yet unmoved. As with everything FIFA, morality can get sidelined by money. The Qataris “won” the right to host the World Cup — in a desert nation with little soccer history — in 2010, a few years before FIFA was shown by Justice Department prosecutors to be deeply corrupt. Qatar’s anti-women, anti-gay, anti-labor and anti-alcohol (sorry, England) authoritarianism was not deemed disqualifying, at least not by FIFA’s elastic ethical standards, which have more interpretations than the offside rule.
Now that they have spent more than $200 billion to stage the World Cup, the Qataris, too, resent being called to account for their human rights record. In England, entities tied to Saudi Arabian ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who orchestrated the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, were deemed “fit and proper” to buy Newcastle United, one of England’s fabled teams. Saudi Arabia, no also-ran when it comes to crushing dissent, has also qualified for the Cup.
Members of Team Melli have already made it clear that they don’t play for their unloved government. In a pretournament friendly match, the players chose to take the field in black warm-ups that hid the national crest, a not-so-subtle support of Iran’s women.
That’s one argument for letting Iran compete. Here’s another: The projected 5 billion viewers of and 1.3 million visitors to the World Cup will bring more attention to the struggle in Iran. “ ‘Team Melli’ in the spotlight is what we all need,” tweeted an Iranian football fan. “To show the world, we are together AGAINST the regime.”
In Qatar, the U.S. Men’s National Team plans to offer support for Iran’s women — but has yet to say exactly how.
For the Iranian players, the risks are both personal and professional. The World Cup is a showcase for talent, especially of Iranians hoping to move to Europe to play. So far, only one Iranian team member, Sardar Azmoun, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, has openly expressed support for Iran’s women.
Adding drama to the picture? This could be Iran’s best team ever. In Carlos Queiroz, Iran has an outstanding coach — and a popular figure who has stood against any interference by authorities. Iran is also playing in a weak first-round group, against a favored English team that nevertheless has been underwhelming in qualifying, an aging Wales team and a young American team.
Assuming FIFA doesn’t find the spine to disqualify the Iranians because of their murderous government, you can expect the members of Team Melli to put up a good fight in the group stage, even if they are eventually eliminated. When they return to their bloodied, combustible nation, a much more important fight will still be unfolding.