Friday, June 09, 2006

Iran's charm offensive

Gabrielle Marcotti, The Prospect:
WHILE Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iran President, continues his “will he, won’t he” game with the West, the country’s footballers are adopting a different approach.

As their leader tussles with the United Nations over Iran’s nuclear programme and threatens to embarrass German officials by attending a World Cup match (Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Holocaust, which is a criminal offence in Germany), the football team are doing their best to win friends and sympathy. Their base near Friedrichshafen, close to the border with Switzerland, is one of the most welcoming at the World Cup. Security is discreet and visitors are plied with Iranian culinary delicacies, served up by the team chef. Before the World Cup, the country had trouble even scheduling friendlies because of Ahmadinejad’s outspoken views on Israel.

Few heads of state wanted to run the risk of playing Iran and give Ahmadinejad a photo opportunity. Only after intense lobbying from Branko Ivankovic, the coach, a Croat with Bosnian roots, were matches against Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina arranged.

Now, however, Iran are on a charm offensive. “In the West, your vision of Iranians is all wrong,” Rahman Rezaei, the Messina defender, who is married to an Italian of Iranian descent, said. “For a start, we’re not Arabs, we have our own culture which goes back 3,000 years. We’re also a very young country — a third of our population is under the age of 18. We’re hungry and eager, we want the world to know us for who we are.” READ MORE

And football is their vehicle. In the past few years, since the clerics (who regarded sport with suspicion) relaxed their hold on the country, football has been booming. Ten daily Iranian newspapers are devoted to sport and it has taken a particular hold on women, who until recently were banned from attending sporting events.

“It’s incredible. I can’t believe it myself when I go back,” Rezaei said. “As soon as they let women into the grounds, they nearly took over. They are so loud and passionate and they are all so well informed. Women in Iran are becoming less and less segregated. And, for them, following football is a form of emancipation.”

Expectations are running high in Iran. Many view tomorrow’s group D match against Mexico as a virtual play-off to reach the second round. Ivankovic, who has said that he will step down after the World Cup because of the intense media pressure in Iran, maintains that his team are capable of reaching the quarter-finals, adding that it is “probably the best side Iran have ever had”.

Indeed, the squad is packed with players boasting European experience, such as Ali Karimi, the Bayern Munich playmaker, and Mehdi Madhavikia, the eccentric SV Hamburg winger, who is probably the only admitted bigamist at the World Cup, as well as veteran Ali Daei, whose 145 caps and 109 goals make him the top international scorer in the history of the game.

Doubts persist, however, because this team have proven erratic (as when they lost a friendly against Queens Park Rangers). Still, for now, football gives Iran hope.

“We as a nation look forward,” Rezaei said. “I want to think about the future. And I think our future is bright.”