International Writers Magazine: Comment
in a football frenzy
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
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 teams 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
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
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 Khatamis
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
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 Presidents 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
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
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