Political history of football in Iran

With the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil approaching and a big number of states already having qualified for the most popular single sport international mega event, the excitement is rising. Although there hasn’t been a draw for the group stage yet, there are already a lot of speculations about potential winners, best players and respective countries’ successes. One of the countries to have made it to the World Cup is Iran, which is currently in the focus of international community’s attention because of the talks on their nuclear programme. Since a big part of media is focusing on the ‘nuclear aspect’ of Iran, I want to approach this state from a bit different perspective – I want to have a look at its political history of football. I want to explore football in relation to political and social circumstances which played a significant part in development of football in Iran.

There are some basic facts about Iran’s football national team:

-it’s known as the Team Melli;

-it ranks 2nd in Asia and 47th in the world (FIFA World Rankings)

-Iran first made it to the World Cup in 1978 (World Cup in Argentina) – just a year before the revolution

-Brazil is going to be the 4th World Cup for Iran

-current coach is Carlos Queiroz 

-FIFA declared Iran as one of the most prominent football nations in Asia (FIFA 2008)

-The Azadi Stadium, with the capacity of 100.000 people, is  the fourth biggest stadium in the world and the first in the Middle East


The following blog post is a summary of the article by H. E. Chehabi, A Political History of Football in Iran (available here). Other sources I used are more or less current newspaper articles.

Football is probably the most popular sport in the world and scholarly attempts to make sense of its popularity go back almost a century. Looking from a global perspective, it is a game in which each team works together to try to occupy as much of the territory of the other as it can, culminating in scoring a goal as a symbolical sign of conquest. The pitch therefore becomes a metaphor for the competition between communities, cities and nations. The excitement that the game generates is well known – there was even a “soccer war” between Honduras and El Salvador.

However, Iranian national sport is wrestling, a discipline whose tradition has lasted for more than a thousand years. Physical exercises were mostly individual in nature, reflecting the national character of Iranians. Despite the wide popularity of wrestling, the biggest excitement was caused by the country’s participation at the FIFA World Cup 1998, since “nationalism peaks because many consider collective action a truer test of a country’s spirit than individual talent” (Chebabi 2002, 372). Since the Islamic Republic has always persisted to keep global culture at bay, the widespread popularity of football in Iran calls for some explanation.

The Introduction of Western Sport to Iran

 The introduction of Western sport in general started mainly through schools, since it was believed that sport and physical exercise are of vast importance for creating a healthy nation that could revive the glories of Ancient Iran. Another reason is that Iranians were not really a cooperative nation and Western collective sports were considered as the means to achieve better cooperation and consequently progress. The European officers of the teaching staff made their Iranian student exercise regularly and in 1919 the minister of education, Nasir al-Mulk made physical education part of the official curriculum of Iranian schools.

It is commonly believed that football was brought to Iranians through three major conduits of modernization: missionary schools, the oil industry and the military. Firstly, in British missionary schools, games, including football, were part of the curriculum. While missionary schools made football familiar only to the sons of the elite, working class Iranians became acquainted with the game through the British employees of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. These young Iranian football players, who joined the British workers, firstly met some hostility from their social environment, since the players’ shorts violated traditional dress codes, for the Sharia requires men to cover their legs from the navel to the knee. Elsewhere in Iran, football was introduced by the British officers of the South Persia Rifles to the Iranian troops they commanded, who then spread the game among the population.

In 1920 a number of Iranian and British football enthusiasts established the Iranian Football Association to encourage Iranian players and to popularize the game. Soon it was renamed into the Association for the Promotion and Progress of Football and Reza Khan agreed to become its honorary president. It became the first registered modern Iranian sports organisation.

  Football under Reza Shah

Reza Shah, born Reza Khan, became the Shah of the Imperial State of Iran in 1925. He established a constitutional monarchy that lasted until the overthrow in 1979. He introduced many social, economic, and political reforms during his reign, ultimately laying the foundation of the modern Iranian state.

Pahlavi Mohammad Reza playing football himself while being educated in Switzerland

Pahlavi Mohammad Reza playing football himself while being educated in Switzerland

By the mid-1920s football became a symbol of modernisation. After coming to power, Reza Shah continued showing an interest in football. He even attended a match between an Iranian team and a team of British expatriates, in which for the first time, the Iranians beat the Britons at their own game. As a sign of greater confidence and also of improved relations between Iran and the Soviet Union, the Iranian cabinet sent 15 football players to an international tournament in Baku. Due to serious losses and consequent critics by the newspapers, the interest in football waned.

The age of Reza Shah was the golden age of varsity sports in Iran. Especially the National Association for Physical Education, established in 1934 under the patronage of the crown prince and the state’s sponsorship, turned football into a popular game and in spite of traditional resistance, football caught on. Not only because of its physical value, but especially because it taught Iranian boys to play fair and create better human relationships.

 Football under Muhammad Reza Shah

 Football_Federation_Islamic_rep__of_Iran-logo-53DC16A88C-seeklogo.comIn 1945, the national football federation was established and it soon joined FIFA. In the 1950s and early 1960s Iranian football was still overshadowed by successes in wrestling. It was only in the late 1960 that football became a major spectator sport. The reasons were various – huge urbanisation, in which mass society favours sports like football, which can be followed by tens of thousands of spectators at stadium; spectators for whom the teams provide focus of loyalty and collective identification at the time when traditional community ties and rituals are weakening; occurrence of television and so on.

In 1968 a victory of strong political importance happened. Only a year after Israel defeating its Arab neighbours in the Six Day War, Iran beat Israel in the finals of the Asian Nations Cup. There were many rumours about bribery, but for the Iranians, the match was not a contest between nations, but between religious groups. This victory made soccer a true phenomenon in Iran.

Domestically, the rivalry between two biggest clubs, Pirspulis and Taj, dominated Iran’s pre-revolutionary football scene. It also had a political dimension since Taj was subsidised by General Khusravani, a military man with close connections to regime and on the other hand, Pirspulis could be identified with the religious opposition as Princess Fatimah Pahlavi was reputedly one of its major share-holders. In 1970 Taj began publishing a sports periodical, trying to gain readers by printing photos of players in the company of female film stars and singers. Because of that the religious oppositionists accused the Pahlavi regime of being morally corrupt.

In the last years of the shah’s regime, oppositionists sometimes even alleged that the regime promoted football to keep the population apolitical and divert public attention from serious matters. In the revolutionary upheavals of 1978 athletes played a minor role. For example, Parviz Qilichkhani, then the best footballer, announced at a press conference in California that he would not join Iran’s national team for the World Cup in order to protest against repression in Iran. With the triumph of the revolutionaries in early 1979, football fell on hard times.

Football in the Islamic Republic of Iran

 Sport was not really on the agenda of the revolutionaries, since it was perceived as the hedonistic excess of Iran’s westernised elites. The political leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran opposed football due to the excitement it generated, which is in contradiction with the principles if Islam. Another reason is the perception of football as the western sports and the means of capitalistic imperialism, which Iran as one of the major opponents of the US strongly resists. Highly religious Iranians were especially bothered by the nakedness of men who showed their legs and by the presence of women. Therefore it was long prohibited for women to watch footballers since it is believed that an unrelated woman may not look at the naked body of an unrelated man, even if the intent is not deriving lust.

Some football pitches were turned into places for the weekly Friday prayers and all football clubs were nationalised. Players were not allowed to wear shirts with Latin letters on them. There was a strong propaganda against football, claiming that political, economic and cultural problems couldn’t be solved by sports, since that caused a lot of unnecessary expenses. Most of the public entertainment was banned and football remained one of the few leisure activities for men. After an incident in 1984, when there were serious riots because a match had been moved to a stadium with much smaller capacities and only few people could watch the game, the Islamic Republican Party concluded that that football fever was a colonialist plot, causing suspicious meetings, too much excitement and black market in tickets and drugs.

However, if the regime had tried to prohibit football, it would have antagonised the classes, on whose support it depended most. In late 1980s, some of the leaders began to realize that the policy of disapproval of sports was self-defeating and they became less strict on sporting events that seemed innocuous enough. But still the dispute over women’s participation wasn’t solved. In the early 1990s, women’s sport revived through the initiative of the daughter of the then president. Conservatives strongly opposed any kind of women’s presence at men’s sports competitions, but in 1994 it was announced that women could attend football matches. Only three days after a match, at which 500 women seated in a special section of the stadium, the football federation resined this decision, claiming that some women had approached footballers to ask for autographs and therefore violated the rules of Islamic norms.

During the 1980s, the Iranian national team didn’t attend any World Cups due to the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88). Domestic football suffered the inevitable effects of the conflict as well. The national team withdrew from the Asian qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup, and refused to participate in the qualifiers for the 1986 World Cup because of having to play on neutral ground.

Gradually Iran’s rulers accepted that football was undoubtedly the most popular sport in

Winning the gold medal at the 1990 Asian Games

Winning the gold medal at the 1990 Asian Games

the country. The greater support of state led to improved performance of the national team. At the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, the Iranian team won the gold medal in football. In 1997 football fever acquired new political importance because the coach, Mayili-Kuhan, who was identified with conservative faction, didn’t allow some of Iran’s star players, who played in German Bundesliga teams, to join the national team. The result was a lousy performance in the qualifying games for the World Cup and when Iran lost 2-0 to Qatar, the matter became an affair of state and was even discussed in the parliament. This coach was replaced by Valdeir Vieira and under his supervision the team managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup 1998. The celebrations were huge and only then Iran’s leading politicians learned what South American presidents have known all along, namely that by associating themselves with a popular activity they show that they share the passions of the people.

USA_Iran_WorldCup2006 At the FIFA World Cup 1998 in France Iran played against the USA and FIFA declared June 21st “Fair Play Day”. President Clinton taped a message before the game in which he expressed the hope that the match would be a step forward ending the estrangement between both nations. There was a lot of excitement prior to the match because of the US politics after the Iranian revolution. However, in an act of defiance against all forms of hatred or politics in sports, both sides presented one another with gifts and flowers and took ceremonial pictures before the match kickoff. In Iran, people celebrated the result of 2-1 as the victory of their team, but elsewhere in the Middle East, crowds celebrated the defeat of the US. The win had a strong political message. In the US, the game was hardly noticed by the media. For Iranian youth, the participation at the World Cup meant that their nation rejoined the international community. The integration of Iranians in world society was symbolically furthered after the competition, when many top Iranian players started playing for foreign football teams, especially in Germany. The national team didn’t succeed in qualifying for the 2002 FIFA World Cup which caused many demonstrations and rumours spread that the government had deliberately instructed the national team to lose as to prevent a repetition of the celebrations of 1998.

iran usa

However, Iran made it to World Cup 2006 in Germany. Qualification to the World Cup in Germany again resulted in mass celebrations, hysteria and rioting, causing internal chaos and unrest between youth and government officials (Iran Football Online). In November 2006, Iran was temporarily suspended from FIFA due to “government interference in football matters and violation of Article 17 of the FIFA Statutes” (FIFA 2006).

iran.armbands.190 During the qualifications for the 2010 FIFA World Cup at the match against South Korea, four members of Iranian national team wore green wristbands as a signature colour of the protests again the re-election of Ahmadinejad as the president (which was suspected to be fixed by the Iranian government) and as the support of the opposition candidate Mir Hussein Moussavi. While the players couldn’t physically participate at the demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, they used the FIFA World Cup Qualifier as leverage to focus international attention on the protests. As well, some of the fans were waving flags with slogans like ‘Free Iran’ or even ‘Go to hell Dictator’ (see more on the story here). The gesture by the players drew worldwide attention and comment. In addition to being barred for life by Iran’s soccer officials, the four players were said to have been forbidden to give interviews to the news media. According to one pro-government newspaper in Iran, the team members have been ‘retired’ from the team (Bell 2009). However, this wasn’t the first example of such kind. Similar form of resistance occurred at the 1998 World Cup in France, but remained unnoticed by media. At the match against the US, huge anti-Katami banners and T-shirts with pictures of Maryana Rajavi, one of the leaders of Iranian opposition, signalled the protest against the regime. As Levermore (2009, p.28) noticed: “Three minutes before kick-off a large orange balloon with a portrait of Maryana Rajavi suspended from its floats across the pitch, bobs over the heads of Iranian players and is eventually captured by the referee on the half way line. You look down at the TV monitor on your workstation to get a close-up of the image, but the screen is showing pictures of some pretty American girls in the crowd”.

women iranFootball is increasingly gaining female’s attention, which was proved when 70.000 fans turned up at the stadium after qualifying to the World Cup 2006, among which 5.000 were women. FIFA report shows that since 2005 an organised women’s football set-up has existed and in 2008 there were 58 women’s teams (FIFA 2008). However, women are still prohibited from attending men’s football matches. The ban was even extended to live public screenings of games in last year’s European football

Blatter meeting Rouhani

Blatter meeting Rouhani

championships. Just a week ago (on 7th November 2013) Sepp Blatter, who was visiting Teheran for 2 days, even appealed to the Iranian authorities to end that ban. As he stated: “I did not intervene to change the law but, as the president of FIFA and defender of football in Islamic countries, I had to present this plea to the political authorities.” (Yahoo Sports 2013). The topic on female spectatorship in Iran was covered in the 2006 movie Offside, in which a group of young Iranian girls dress up a boys to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi stadium to watch that year’s World Cup qualifying playoff against Bahrain.

 Under Ahmadinejad, there was a lot of political interference in football. Afshin Ghotbi, who was head coach of the national team from 2009 to 2011, reported to Al Jazeera (Duerden 2013a) about the state of Iranian football affairs: “My experience as the national team manager of Iran was that football plays a major role in the political, social and even economic direction that the nation takes and the people who decide the direction of the country are constantly using the game for their political agenda. There are pluses and minuses to it all. The government’s financial resources support the game but it becomes politically manipulated. It becomes too dependent on the political system and the money and it starts operating as a political business.” Even Wikileaks revealed a diplomatic cable from Tehran that allegedly said: “Ahmadinejad has staked a great deal of political capital in Iranian soccer… in an effort to capitalise on soccer’s popularity with constituents.” Furthermore, although competing at the Gulf Cup of Nations, a biennial regional tournament, happening in January 2014, would be very useful for practicing and testing the team’s condition prior to the World Cup, Iran refuses to participate due to the name. Tehran calls the gulf the Persian Gulf, and does not countenance any contradictions (Duerden 2013b). 

The prospect of the World Cup 2014 might avert fans from caring about political problems and consequences of international isolation. Currently, Iran is struggling with the US-led sanctions which are severely harming Iran’s economy. Iran is having troubles selling its oil, the currency is unstable, foreign reserves are falling and inflation is going in the opposite direction. This affects football as well. Not only because of the crumbling economy, but also because international transfer of money can’t be taken for granted. For example, in 2012 the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) had problems receiving a payment of $1 million from the Asian Football Confederation (Duerden 2013b). What will be the position on football of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who has promised more open politics, transparent nuclear programme and improvement of Iran’s international standing, will be probably seen soon – if not earlier, at the World Cup. However, his reforms might prove beneficial also in the field of football.

South Korea Iran World Cup Soccer


Bell, Jack. 2009. Iran Did Not Suspend Players, Coach Says. The New York Times, 26. 6. Available at: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/26/iran-did-not-suspend-players-coach-says/ (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Chehabi, H. E. 2002. A political History of Football in Iran. Sports and Games 35 (4): 371–402. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4311479 (Accessed on 2 November 2010).

Duerden, John. 2013a. Iran leaders gain as football loses. Al Jazeera, 1 March. Available at: http://www.aljazeera.com/sport/football/2013/03/201331151948798426.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Duerden, Jon. 2013b. Iran drifting away in a political tide. World Cup Central, 11 August. Available at: http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/worldcupcentral/id/416?cc=5739 (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). 2006. FIFA suspends Iran Football Federation, 23 November. Available at: http://web.archive.org/web/20070102093639/http://www.fifa.com/en/media/index/0,1369,126229,00.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). 2008.  Football in Iran. Available at: http://www.fifa.com/associations/association=irn/goalprogramme/newsid =950325.html (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Iran Football Online. Available at: http://www.iranfootballonline.com/ (Accessed on 19 March 2011).

Kim, Brian and Danny Mammo. 2009. Iran’t Political Corruption and Turmoil: How Football Brought it to Light, Soccer Politics Pages. Available at: http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/middle-east/iran/ (Accessed on 16 November 2013).

Levermore, Roger. 2009. Sport’s role in constructing the ‘inter-state’ worldview. In Sport and International Relations: An Emerging Relationship, ed. Roger Levermore and Adrian Budd, 16‒30. London: Routledge.

Yahoo Sports. 2013. Football chief Blatter urges Iran to admit women to stadiums, 7 November. Available at: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/fifas-blatter-urges-iran-admit-women-stadiums-152658653–sow.html (Accessed on 16 November 2013).



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