The International Writers Magazine: Comment

Iran in a football frenzy
Kevin Widdop

ch liebe mein President," Iranian taxi driver Ali told me in car Number 70 in Erlangan, a picturesque, pretty town outside Nuremburg. Imprisoned 12 years ago in Iran for discussing politics, he says he is glad to be living in a democracy, albeit one with its faults, where free speech flows as freely as the Pilsner being devoured by the England fans - from Bavaria to Westfallen - during this tournament.

His is a story that I have heard on several occasions in bars and beer gardens in Nuremburg for Iran's opener against Mexico, continued along the sun-kissed Main river in Frankfurt, where Iran lost 2-0 to a superior Portuguese side and in Leipzig, for the team’s final game tomorrow (Wednesday) in Leipzig against Angola, whose usually anonymous 50,000 inhabitants have been leavened by the visit of a who's who of nationalities around the world.

Iranians are as well-travelled and worldly-wise as most, with many leaving to heighten and hone their education. They say that the inherent restrictions of living in a country where women were only allowed to attend football matches since April, a populist move by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is reason enough to leave.

Self-employed New York lawyer Sharman is one such case. She left for the US when she was five years old, shortly before the 1970 revolution. Her father also spent a period in prison. She explained to me in Frankfurt, her Dolce and Gabana, oversized shades an index of her Westernised upbringing: "The kids have nothing there; sport is their religion." She says that the youth in Tehran use sport as a vehicle for expression; especially women, who have been here in great numbers, liberally-dressed and scantily-clad to boot: the World Cup motto ‘Die Welt Zu Gast Bei Freunden’ pointed up and promulgated - a time to make friends indeed.

If there were ever a manifestation that sport is integral to the lives of the repressed people of Iran, then it came in 2001, during the football riots where fan's rapture and rage towards then President Mohammed Khatami’s government was met with armed and angry police, batons and all. It was up there with the violence of the 1979 revolution, but, here, there have only been smiles aplenty for Iranians: an opportunity to forget the reasons for which their country is at the forefront of the debate about nuclear weapons and a potential hotspot for another Anglo-American invasion.

Iranian freelance journalist Akhatar lends authority, if any were needed, to these claims. Outside the Fifa World Cup Stadion in Frankfurt, she says that poltiics and sport are only interconnected in so far as Ahmadinejad wants them to be. "It means a lot for the people to be here, not for the government of Iran," she said, revealing a scintilla of finely-wrought torso. "We can come here without thinking about politics." That may be the case, but the green, white and red colours of Iran, accompanied by the national emblem that is a representation of the word Allah in the shape of a red tulip, is written into the fabric of this much-discussed country.

Despite the problems, these colours burn brightly in the hearts of Iranians. An exile from Tehran, Ali speaks eloquently in heavily-accented German that he has great fear for speaking out, even so long after leaving Iran. His refrain of 'angst' reverberates around his air-condition-free car . "I will not talk about politics," he says sternly. But it is hard not to, such is the meandering nature of our conversation, seguing from sport and football to life and, of course, Ahmadinejad. Using a request for the Burger King on the outskirts of the town before England's 2-0 victory against Trinidad & Tobago in Nuremburg last week as a pretext for perpetuating the journey, I ask why he does not want to talk politics. "Excuse me! Listen to me," he says, his erect finger underlining the angst he speaks of. "What he (Ahmadinejad) said was a mistake," he says of the Iranian President’s now infamous comment about wiping Ehud Olmert's Israel "off the map". Do you really love your president, I ask him, returning to his earlier remark and whipping out the notepad? "I was only having fun when I said that," he says, slightly awkwardly. "Look, I am a simple man: I work and go home and maybe have a beer. I watch TV - and I sleep. Then I go to work again in the taxi." His brother, who also lives in Erlangan, does the same.

But football, the beautiful game whose beauty has long had an ostensibly umbilical link to the grubby trade of politics - from Fifa President Sepp Blatter's off-the-cuff remark in conversation with the ostentatiously lip-glossed Kay Burley of Sky News that everyone is welcome, even Ahmadinejad, to Tony Blair's portentious comment that England will improve against Sweden to the appearance of Tunisia and Saudi Arabia and Iran - has also been an outlet for the Iranian people's discontent and dispossession for some time. In this, Iran's third appearance at the World Cup, the intermittent and cacophonous chant of 'Iran, Iran' has been a mainstay.

"They're just like everyone else: English, German, French," 25-year-old Claudio said at the Iranian vorfest last Friday in Frankfurt before the Portugal game. ''Everyone thinks their bad, but it's not true,'' the Swiss student said watching a plump yet jubilant Argentinian fan orchestrate a time of hands-in-the-air-like-you-just-don't-care after the team's 6-0 drubbing of Serbia. If ever there were an endoresement of football, then, from my experience here, it was watching Iranians mingle cheerfully with smooth-on-the-dancefloor Portuguese mixed with a bit of unkempt English here, a dash of Bratwurst-in-the-hand Germans there.
But paranoia is never far away. On the pitch, Iranian manager Branko Ivankovic's defensive tactics have been met with conspiracy theories off it. "People back home are saying that they (the Iranian team) lost because, otherwise, there would be a revolution," Sharman says, her New York twang a signature of her thirty-plus years in the Big Apple. That theory may have more in common with Ahmadinejad's rationale that the best way to deal with a problem is to obliterate it, but, nonetheless, it's another talking point in a seething amalgam of talking points.

So Ahmadinejad, whose one-year tenure has been as controversial and much documented as it has been successful and whose approval rating now stands at 70%, will not be coming to Germany. The threats of imprisonment for the man who declared that Israel should be ''wiped off the map'', will not see the light of day. If Bavarian Interior Minister Gunter Beckstein's comment for the rally in Nuremburg that he is a criminal and not welcome in Germany - or any well-functioning democracy, for that matter - then the fiercly-supported Middle Eastern side, whose football here has probably warranted more than the team's one goal so far, do not want anything to do with him. The calls for the side's ejection from the tournament by some critics must have heralded a smile or two - if not wrath and writhing in the chair - in some corners of Iran given the team's unstinting and unremitting opposition to the government. Although officially the Islamic Republic of Iran, in 2006, the 'Iran, Iran' beat will stay ringing in the ears of the multifarious nationalities here long after Iran's departure from these championships.
© Kevin Widdop September 2006 (written during the World Cup this year)

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