How Hard Will Team Melli Kick?
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“I think that’s highly unlikely.” This was the initial response of Gareth Southgate, the England national football team coach, when asked whether England would be going along with FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s request to avoid politics and focus solely on football when the twenty-second FIFA World Cup begins this Sunday. Southgate added that he thought England players would “like to focus primarily on the football,” but realized and accepted the circumstances surrounding this World Cup.
In a letter to the 32 nations participating in the World Cup, which will be held in Qatar until December 18, Infantino had requested that nations not “allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists.” At this point, it is difficult to see how Infantino’s request will be satisfied.
A few moments earlier, Southgate had been asked about England’s first opponent in the competition, Iran: “They have been supplying the likes of Russia with weaponry. Should they be at this World Cup?” Southgate avoided answering the question by referencing his lack of expertise on the subject, but the question itself is worth examining. Indeed, Ukraine’s military has recently claimed that the Iranian-made drones used by Russia against them were supplied after Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February. Russia, the host of the last World Cup in 2018, is currently banned from FIFA competitions.
Assuming Iran has been supplying Russia with arms, the question to Southgate remains problematic on two fronts. First, it focuses on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s involvement with Russia and completely ignores the reality on the ground in the country for the past two months. As of November 12, Iranian security forces had killed at least 326 people, including 43 children and 25 women, since nationwide protests erupted on September 17. The Iranian authorities have also charged at least 1,000 people in Tehran Province for their alleged involvement in the protests that followed the killing of Mahsa (Jina) Amini in the custody of Iran’s “morality police,” reportedly because she was not wearing her hijab properly. Strict rules governing the lives of Iranian women have been in place since the 1980s, to the extent that Iranian women were still recently being banned from entering stadiums to watch football matches.
The second problem with the question was that the questioner ignored the importance and multiple symbolisms of Iran’s national team and conflated it with the Islamic Republic. Over the years, Team Melli, Persian for “the national team,” has been supported by Iranians of all persuasions—Iranians in Iran or in the diaspora, Iranians who support the regime or who are against it. When Team Melli participates in the World Cup, especially, Iranians seem to be more united.
After Amini’s death, some prominent activists called on FIFA to ban Team Melli from the World Cup. Former players, and some of the best footballers Iran has ever produced, such as Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, are firm supporters of the protests. Last week, Team Melli’s current head coach, Carlos Queiroz, postponed and then canceled a scheduled press conference to announce Iran’s squad for the World Cup after Iran’s football federation allegedly pressured him to drop star striker Sardar Azmoun from the team for having supported the protests. Queiroz eventually released his squad list through a statement and it included Azmoun. Many observers regard the World Cup as a venue, arguably the largest, for the team to protest against the Islamic Republic.
Over the past weeks, Iranian athletes have been staging different kinds of reactions in support of the protests or, at least, in solidarity with victims of state brutality. Iran’s water polo team refused to sing the Islamic Republic’s anthem. One Iranian beach soccer player celebrated his goal by pretending to cut his hair (in solidarity with the Iranian women who have been cutting their hair as an act of protest). After winning Iran’s Super Cup trophy, Esteghlal Football Club players celebrated in complete silence. Professional rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in an international tournament without a hijab (an act for which she later apologized).
To borrow from Southgate’s words, it is “highly unlikely” that we will have a World Cup without Team Melli (or its fans) being involved in delivering some kind of political message to the world.
It will be intriguing to see what happens in Team Melli’s final group stage match, a match that often decides whether a team qualifies for the second round. On November 29, Team Melli is scheduled to face the United States for the first time in 22 years. When these two teams met last at a World Cup, in 1998, this was considered one of the most politically charged games in the tournament’s history.
In the lead-up to that game, Team Melli striker Khodadad Azizi had said that the team “would not lose” and that “many families of martyrs [from the Iran-Iraq war] expected the team to win.” Even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, is said to have been directly involved in the preparation for the match when he gave express orders that Team Melli not walk toward Team USA for the pre-match handshake (but rather the Americans should walk toward the Iranians). U.S. President Bill Clinton also released a brief message before the game. Ultimately, the game was played in a friendly way, and Team Melli won 2-1.
Jalal Talebi, Team Melli’s head coach at the time, who left Iran in the 1980s and now resides in California, has said that the Iran-United States match is still in his mind and heart and was important “not because it was [against] the U.S.” but because “it was the first [ever] World Cup victory at a time when Iranian people were waiting to be happy. And it made people happy. People in [his] country have never forgotten that night and how they danced in the streets until early morning.”
This World Cup will no doubt be a major stage for the Iranian team to make a statement, in one way or another, whether through their performance on the pitch or through their political actions on or off it. That of which we can be certain is that penalizing Team Melli along with the Islamic Republic would be an unjust act of collective punishment. Moreover, Iranian unity around the national team may potentially become another catalyst for unity against the Islamic Republic.