Women who dared to celebrate a World Cup victory may eventually change the face of the Middle East
When future historians discuss the political transformation of the Middle East, they may highlight the day Iranian women invaded a soccer stadium during key diplomatic and military events. Like the Boston Tea Party at the dawn of the American Revolution, Iran’s win in a World Cup match could go down as the moment when people first realized that they could challenge their tyrannical rulers.
After Islamic militants overthrew the Shah, Soccer was frowned upon as a “Western” sport, especially for female fans. In 1987, the country’s spiritual and political dictator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, decreed that women could watch soccer on television, which would carry games for the first time since the revolution of 1979, but he still forbade them from watching games in person.
In hindsight, it was inevitable that women would eventually defy the laws banning them from attending soccer matches. Taking such a bold move, however, required not only courage but a potent historical moment. The heroics of Iran’s national team in 1997 offered both.
Iran’s hopes to qualify for the World Cup that year depended on a single playoff game against Australia, played in Melbourne. For most of the game, the Iranian team knocked the ball around the field as if trying to lose the match on purpose—not so preposterous an idea when you consider the Iranian government was worried that victory celebrations in Tehran that might spin dangerously out of control. But in the last fifteen minutes of play—frantic, dramatic moments—the Iranian team struck two stunning goals and won the game. Iran would advance to the World Cup for the first time since Khomeini returned from exile eighteen years earlier.
The Iranian regime, which possesses a keen knack for self-preservation, braced itself for a night of celebrations where euphoric fans might be crazy enough to take to the streets. Soccer had already come to symbolize aspirations for a new, more liberal Iran. For the first time in the history of the Islamic republic, a foreign coach led the squad, a Brazilian named Valdeir Vieira. When he paced the sideline, he wore a necktie—a fashion that the Shah had pushed as an emblem of modern Iran and that the clerics had rejected as a Western imposition. Many of Vieira’s players had also played in European or Asian leagues, offering hopeful examples of Iran cooperating with the rest of the world.
Indeed, the government had been right to feel anxious. After the victory over Australia, the streets of Tehran filled with revelers. Dancing and drinking and Western pop music, normally confined to people’s homes, became part of the festivities. If the revelers had only been men, that might have been overlooked. But in well-heeled neighbourhoods, and especially among the young, women joined the celebration. Some of them threw off the hijab and paraded through the streets without any of the mandated head coverings. When the Basiji, members of the religious paramilitary militia, arrived to shut down the demonstrations, many were persuaded to join the party themselves.
Some delicate defusing was now needed. To let things cool down, the government asked the team to take their time coming back from Australia, including a leisurely layover in Dubai. Radio broadcasts warned citizens against secular victory celebrations that gave Allah short shrift. Other messages specifically appealed to the women of the country, our “dear sisters,” urging them to stay home during the homecoming celebrations.
When the team finally returned, three days later, the government held the celebration at Azadi stadium, where the soccer heroes arrived via helicopters instead of a motorcade through the streets. But thousands of women defied the government’s pleas and gathered outside Azadi’s gates, in the minus-three chill (27 degrees Fahrenheit). As French anthropologist Christian Bromberger has reported, the police refused to admit the women to the stadium and they began chanting “Aren’t we part of this nation? We want to celebrate too. We aren’t ants.” Fearing the horde, police let three thousand women into special seating, segregated from men in the crowd. But several thousand other women who were denied entrance broke through the gates and muscled their way into the stadium. Intent on avoiding a major riot that could steer the raw emotions of the day in a dangerous direction, the police had no choice but to concede defeat.
This event at Azadi stadium still serves as a symbol of liberty for many Iranians, so much so that each subsequent World Cup qualifying match has led to street rallies. The political subtext of these outpourings has become increasingly explicit. With every Iranian victory in 2002—over Saudi Arabia, over Iraq, over the United Arab Emirates—jubilant fans chanted “Zindibad azadi” (long live freedom) and “We love America.”
But even this outpouring of dissent may underestimate the significance of Iran’s soccer revolution; it could point a new direction for much of the Middle East. We may be glimpsing the future of the region at soccer celebrations when we see graffiti praising the “noble people of Iran,” and hear fans shouting the name of Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the late Shah. These could be the roots of a nationalist uprising against Islamic theocracy.
But is this soccer revolution the future that Western powers want to see in the region? Not so long ago, secular nationalism looked like the great enemy. Dictators like Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Hafez Assad in Syria were big thorns in America’s side, supporting terrorism. But Arab nationalists eventually fell upon tough times. They no longer could turn to the Soviet Union for patronage, and the first Gulf War exposed how the U.S. could easily crush even the most powerful of them, Saddam Hussein. What’s more, since the 1960s heyday of Arab nationalism as personified by Gamal Nasser in Egypt, secularists had to compete with a burgeoning Islamic movement funded by Saudi Arabia. Now, with the nationalists on the ropes, radical Islamic groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, along with fundamentalist Wahabi preachers, are gaining greater influence over Arabs across the region.
The old nationalist dictators were a known quantity, but Western powers still aren’t sure how to respond to the continuing rise of religious fundamentalism? One answer has been to inject more globalization into the region. But that hasn’t worked, at least not so far. It was a strategy that ultimately failed for the former Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. And in places like Pakistan today, a proliferation of KFC and imported movies has arguably aggravated the problem. By showcasing the modern way of life, they draw attention to the region’s own humiliating lack of modernity. The Islamic world is also suspicious that Western interest in the region, either through development aid or something more drastic like the Iraq war, has more to do with keeping petroleum supplies secure than humanitarian and democratic interests.
Iran’s soccer revolution suggests that the best antidote to Islamic dictatorship might not be something new and shiny from the West, but something old—a return to secular nationalism. Indeed, the soccer revolution presages a promising scenario: That people won’t accept theocracy forever. When they revolt, they might fleetingly plead for Western help, but they’ll mostly rise up in the name of their nation. Western powers might not always agree with the new nationalists—and once in power the nationalists will probably take rhetorical shots at the West—but they may be the only viable alternative to totalitarian Islamic rule.
Iran’s Islamic regime managed to virtually eliminate pop culture in a very short time, purging the divas and crooners, rejecting any movie that showed excessive flesh. But when this clampdown extended to soccer, the regime ran into deep resistance. It put the new government in direct opposition to a great passion of the Iranian people. And very quickly, the mullahs realized that eradicating soccer wasn’t worth the political price. Since the regime couldn’t ban soccer, they did the next best thing: They tried to Islamicize the game. For a time, agents of the regime infiltrated games and attempted to lead chants praising Allah. The regime also experimented with plastering slogans all over stadiums. Instead of pushing Coca-Cola and Toshiba, the boards screamed, “Down with the USA” and “Israel must be destroyed.” But crowds laughed the religious cheerleading out of the stadium.
The savvy Iranian regime began to chart a more realistic course with a focus on limiting the un-Islamic influences that might accompany the sport. For some games, it insists on a slight delay in the broadcast, so that the censors have time to weed out the crowd’s foul language or political messages that might be overheard on television. For other games, it electronically softens fan noise to a barely audible din.
During the 1998 World Cup games in France, the mullahs feared the influence of exiled opponents, especially a group of quasi-Marxists called the People’s Majahideen, who arrived at the stadium in large numbers with banners and carefully rehearsed chants. To avoid transmitting embarrassingly subversive messages, Iranian television crews didn’t shoot any footage of the actual crowd. Instead, it edited in stock images, and not terribly convincing ones. The televised crowds were bundled in heavy winter coats, hardly attire suited to France in June.
So what does the Islamic regime fear from soccer? Many Iranians appreciate that international soccer links them to the advanced, consumer-rich, secular West. When they broadcast World Cup games, viewers can’t miss the placards on the side of the pitch that advertise PlayStation, Doritos, and Nike—a way of life Iranians are forbidden to join. Indeed, photo editors at Iran’s newspapers blot out the advertising on the chests of Western players’ jerseys.
But again, there’s only so much damage control that the Muslim fundamentalists can do. They can blot out the ads but not the players themselves. Any photo of David Beckham, for example, with hair always shifting from buzz to mohawk to ponytail, conveys an infectious symbol of freedom. It’s an idea that Iranian players have picked up on. Almost to a man, the national team plays without beards and with carefully coifed hair. They are heartthrobs, and many of them have gone on to careers in Germany, England, Singapore, and other outposts of the global economy. They couldn’t be more different from the ideal of pious Iranian masculinity that the clerics back home would like to project.
What should we make of the emergence of soccer as a symbol of dissent? It could represent the inevitable challenge that globalisation poses to Islam. But that can’t be the whole story. Soccer thrives in much of the Muslim world without threatening Islamic radicalism. Hezbollah sponsors a soccer team in Lebanon. The fundamentalist Wahabi-oriented Gulf States have imported aging Western stars to play in their leagues for one last paycheque. Saudi Arabians have built princely arenas with marble and gold leaf, like the awesome King Fadh International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
What makes Iran’s soccer revolution different is that through a period of years it has tapped into nationalist fervour and turned it against the state. Shouts for a new, free society can be heard in the victory cheers. The Iranian commitment to Islam is deep, but so is the Iranian commitment to Iran. There’s considerable nostalgia among youth for the days of the Shah, even if they themselves never lived through them. Bootleg tapes of pop stars from the past have circulated widely; the necktie has been in resurgence. It’s the same impulse behind the soccer fans shouting the name of the Shah’s son.
Arab nationalism has not been forgot in the region. And while it might not be the optimal alternative to current conditions in the eyes of most Western diplomats and humanitarians, for now it may have to do.
Adapted with permission from Franklin Foer: How Soccer Explains the World – An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (HarperCollins, 2004, ISBN 0066212340), a very readable book about the connection between soccer and the global economy, politics and culture. Franklin Foer is a journalist with the American intellectual editorial magazine The New Republic. He describes himself as hopeless with a ball.