19 April 2018

In November 1997, the Iranian men’s national football team faced Australia in a play-off for a place at the 1998 World Cup in France. After a 1-1 draw in the first encounter at home, the team traveled to Melbourne for a tense second-leg, but the occasion is noted for its drama off the pitch as much as on it.

 

In its short, tumultuous history the Islamic Republic of Iran has provided numerous pivotal talking points. Amidst recent political unrest on home soil with a place in the World Cup in Russia on the horizon, football for good in history looks back to moments remembered fondly across the nation. The night Iran qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France and subsequent performance at the tournament. 

 

Since the revolution that ousted the Shah in 1979, the potential of World Cup qualifiers to create opportunities to protest have been common in Iran. To this day, the prevailing conservative culture restricts the voicing of displeasure towards the regime, with football as one of the few remaining outlets. 

 

As an Iranian journalist notes, “in terms of freedom of expression, soccer stadiums are nearly as important as the internet in Iran now. The protest is more secure there because the police can’t arrest thousands of people at once. State television broadcasts many matches live and the people use it as a stage for resistance. They’re showing banners to the cameras and chanting protest songs, which is why some games are broadcast without sound now.”

 

A night to remember

 

On 29th November 1997, barely a month after Mohammed Khatami was elected as president promising a less restricted society, the men’s national football team faced Australia in a winner-takes-all second-leg qualifier for a place at France ’98. The political context building up to the game in Melbourne and the tense 90 minutes that followed sparked memorable scenes in Tehran.

 

With just 20 minutes remaining, Australia held a seemingly unassailable 2-0 (3-1 aggregate) lead until Karim Bagheri’s goal turned the tide to give Iran a glimmer of hope. Just four minutes later, Khodadad Azizi’s name was written into Iranian football folklore as he netted the equaliser which sent his team to France on the away goals rule. 

 

The drama was not limited to the pitch however, as the victory celebrations escalated into spontaneous displays of political expression in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Defying societal norms, many women removed their veils and took to the streets alongside men to honk their car horns, wave flags and dance together to blacklisted music. Shortly after, 5,000 women stormed the national stadium where the team was being welcomed to protest a ban from attending matches and defy calls in the media for them to watch the ceremony on television at home.

 

Onwards to France 

 

More such scenes followed six months later as the national side faced the United States in the tournament proper. The strained political relations of the two nations saw the US soccer president bill the occasion “the mother of all games.” In a full-blooded affair Iran held on to record their first ever victory in the World Cup and the Iranian people again exploded into fits of celebration. “People danced in the streets, openly drinking alcohol and women removed head-scarves,” remembers FIFA media officer Mehrdad Masoudi. “The Revolutionary Guard didn’t do anything about it because they were so happy. They were football fans first and Revolutionary Guards second.”

 

These events are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago, but they illustrate the uniting force that football can be to bring divergent groups together against societal constraints. What does Russia ’18 have in store?

 

This article appeared in FOOTBALL4GOOD Magazine Issue 6/April 2018. Read more stories here from the field of football for good here.

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