Football, or soccer, stands as Iran's most beloved sport, captivating millions from local alleyways to international stadiums, and it has taken sharp political dimensions.
Amidst growing tensions between the government and the populace, football has morphed into a battleground for ideological conflict. At the heart of the dispute lies the question: Is the team representing Iran truly the national team, or merely a tool of the regime? On both sides of the debate, myriad factions offer diverse perspectives. This strife is absent in less prominent sports like water polo, badminton, and skiing, where neither the government nor the people invest significant interest, rendering them immune to political exploitation.
The convergence of the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement with the 2022 World Cup in Qatar catapulted this struggle onto the streets, prompting some to rally behind opposing teams—some even cheered for the American team after Iran's defeat in their match. In this clash, several youths fell victim to the regime's brutality, like Mehran Sammmak in Bandar Anzali. Although the Asian Games in 2024 saw less street activism, the conflict rages on through social media and traditional channels.
Arguments from both camps:
Those branding the existing team as the regime's squad cite several factors. Foremost is the regime's penchant for anti-meritocracy and ideological vetting, even in sports. Under the Islamist regime's totalitarian grip, no sphere of life remains immune to government intervention. The regime extends special privileges to footballers, including duty-free luxury imports and generous state-backed salaries. These perks serve as ideological carrots, motivating players to echo regime rhetoric, as exemplified by Qala Noui's post-match gratitude to divine intervention after a victory.
Furthermore, the regime's propaganda machine operates in overdrive within football, from orchestrated spectator attendance to grandiose declarations by top officials upon victory. The regime intertwines football successes with national achievements, glorifying players' meetings with high-ranking officials and showering them with accolades. The regime's obsession with celebrity status extends to football, positioning players as national icons.
Additionally, footballers face constant surveillance, with every word and action scrutinized. Their families are not spared from intimidation, reinforcing the regime's grip over players' public personas. Despite expectations of solidarity with the populace, footballers remain tethered to the regime's narrative, perpetuating its agenda regardless of match outcomes.
People expect a national team to be with them in their joys and sorrows, something the current football team fails to do in the view of many Iranians, who return the attitude by turning their backs to them.
Conversely, proponents of the team as the national squad offer a contrasting narrative. They argue that many players are European-based professionals selected on merit rather than political allegiance. While the regime may exploit players for propaganda, it does not define their allegiance. Some players have demonstrated dissent, supporting past protests like the 2009 Green Movement, indicating their independence from regime narratives.
However, the issue is not about a few players voicing solidarity with protesters, but the attitude of the team as a whole.
Victories by the team elicit national jubilation, transcending regime affiliations. Despite forced interactions with regime figures, players harbor no illusions about their roles as symbols of national pride. Their mandate is not to champion dissent but to represent the nation on the global stage.
The absence of comprehensive surveys complicates attributing public sentiment, or the exact attitudes of team members. Nonetheless, verifiable accounts underscore the chasm between regime control and public sentiment, demonstrating that both sentiments exist among the populace.