Iran’s Soccer Diplomacy: An Appealing World Cup Team May Be the Persian People’s Best Messenger

I wouldn’t call myself an ardent soccer fan, but for the past week I’ve been planning my schedule around Iran’s World Cup matches. When the team known as Team Melli (the National Team, in Farsi) won their World Cup-qualifying match against South Korea last year, I was working furiously to fill orders at Café Nadery, a Persian restaurant in New York’s West Village, where I had designed the menu. As per health department standards, I wore a bandana to keep my hair back, as did the female cook next to me. Every once in a while, the restaurant would erupt in raucous cheers, and we would peer out of the kitchen to glance at the large-screen TV, and at the roomful of (mostly) men who had gathered to watch. Separated from the men, with my head covered, and hearing the shouts in Farsi, I laughed to myself that I had been transported to Iran. My father was born and raised there, but I had never visited.

A year later, this past spring, I found myself in the real Iran, having finally received my Iranian passport a few months earlier. Sure enough, with the World Cup around the corner, excitement was building. I knew from my husband, an avid Italian-American soccer player and fan, that a great way to make conversation with men of any nationality (with the exception of Americans) is to simply mention “football,” so I put it to the test in Iran. While not every Iranian had high hopes for the national team, most were active or former soccer players themselves, even the ones with a pronounced “kebab gut.” Ali, my friendly and robust driver and companion in Shiraz, assured me, “I used to be really good,” then blithely patted his bulging stomach with a downturned mouth. “It’s like I have a soccer ball in here now.”

While I trolled the treasure-filled bazaars of Tabriz and Esfahan for spices and paisley-patterned textiles for myself, I knew there was only one suitable gift for my futbal-loving husband: the Iranian national team uniform, vivid red with green trim and a faint imprint of an Asian cheetah. Thanks to my sports fan cousin Setare, who knew exactly which store to hit, I scored a victory when I found the full Iranian team “kit” –shirt and shorts­– in my husband’s size on my last night in Tehran. Flush with my storefront success, I imagined briefly if suddenly, due to historic World Cup upsets, the Iran jersey suddenly became a hot item, like the Italian and Brazilian team strips. Now that would be a game-changer.

Back at home in Brooklyn, I watched an interview with Steven Beitashour, the Iranian-American player from San Jose who decided to play for Iran in the World Cup, after being passed over by the United States team. Despite receiving some criticism for his decision, Beitashour, an intelligent and likeable 27-year-old, has an admirable attitude toward his own cultural position. His interview on ESPN, not surprisingly, began with a recap of the 1979 hostage crisis, complete with anti-American chants and a burning American flag. Asked about his controversial decision to join the Iranian team, Steven smiles and says exactly what I’ve been wanting to express since returning from Iran: “At the end of the day we’re all human beings; no one wants to fight or argue. It would be great to have camaraderie between the two countries, because I know they will.” Perhaps it’s the maudlin music, but I tear up with pride every time I watch this clip.

I returned to Café Nadery last week—husband in tow, wearing his perfectly fitting Iran jersey—to watch Iran play its first, hotly anticipated World Cup game, against a formidable Nigeria. Alas, it was impossible to get in. The excited crowd of Persian men and women was spilling out onto the sidewalk. Peering inside, the room was a tableau of Persian faces and a hubbub of Farsi, the sight of which made me inexplicably happy. Perhaps I’d never seen that much Iranian pride openly displayed in this country, or maybe I hadn’t been ready until now to truly feel it myself. After a revelatory month in Iran, where I discovered everything I’d hoped to find there—a warm and welcoming family, wonderful food, and a deeper sense of my own history—I feel personally invested in the culture and people of Iran like never before, and I, too, hope and even anticipate that America and Iran can work out their differences.

Why the optimism? Everyone in Iran, without exception, told me that they love Americans. They asked me to go home and tell the truth about Iran: that Iranians want to live in a free society, and that our country’s differences are between our governments, not between our peoples. While the travel tales of individuals like me can certainly add to the cause of cultural understanding, there are surely no better ambassadors for Iran right now than a soccer team that is holding its own in the World Cup well beyond what anyone might have expected. Last week, these 23 young men kept the Argentine soccer super-hero Lionel Messi at bay for the full length of a game, before conceding in the dying minutes, and now, suddenly, everyone is noticing Iran–and for once, it’s got nothing to do with a mullah or nuclear weapons. It doesn’t hurt that the team is a stunningly handsome bunch of rugged men (not all Iranians look like ex-president Ahmadinejad, thank you very much).

And so, there I am, half out of my seat, pumping my fist, and yelling “Let’s go, guys!” at the plasma TV up on the wall of a local bar. There’s a newfound pride as I listen to the commentators grapple with the player’s exotic names: Haghighi, Dejagah, Ghoochanejhad. With a family name like Shafiiha, that makes absolutely no sense to an native English speaker, it’s gratifying to hear them trying hard to pronounce these imported plosives correctly. A year ago, Iranian soccer was a distant amusement that didn’t speak to me about identity. Now, this simple game seems to promise redemption not only for me, but for the whole country. So here’s to the Iranian National Team: may they make it to the next round of this dramatic World Cup. Whatever happens in Iran’s game against Bosnia, they have already shown us, through their underdog tenacity, that there’s more to this complex country than the content of a newsreel from 1979. On Wednesday, I’ll be the woman at the next table, yelling, “C’mon, you can win this!”

8 thoughts on “Iran’s Soccer Diplomacy: An Appealing World Cup Team May Be the Persian People’s Best Messenger

  1. Louisa, isn’t it wonderful what a first trip back home can do? I felt the same way when I went back at the age of 29 – not having been there since we left when I was 6. Thanks for using this platform to share information about what a wonderful place Iran is and how amazing our people are. I hope you will post more about your trip.

  2. Hey Sara! That’s amazing that you went back. There is so much to love in Iran. I just got through transcribing my trip notes – I learned, experienced, and tasted so much. I will be sharing pics and stories from my travels soon!

  3. Louisa,
    What a lovely write up, I find it amazing that even though team Melli did not make it, we still are so proud of them for the way they played and handled themselves. They were the perfect representation that all of us had been waiting for after being represented so negatively in the media. I also find it so upsetting that after all these years Iran’s image in America is still defined by the hostage crises in 1979.
    I am greatful that you spend the time to write such lovely words about Iran, and shed light on how wonderful this country and it’s people is, for the people that fallow you.
    Best Regards,

  4. Hi Lousia,
    I was doing some research when I came across your page. I absolutely loved it. Looking forward to read your book 😉 /Jasmine @Sweden

    1. Hey Jasmine, big hello to you from Brooklyn! Thanks for stopping by, I look forward to seeing your novel one day!

  5. This post brought tears of joy to my eyes.
    Soccer has always been a part of Persian culture and this new face of Iran being known with their world level handse soccer players is what I am hoping to happen more often in all the other areas too. To show the world we are this peace loving talented hard working people in contrary to what is portrayed of us in social media.
    Thank you so much for this beautiful article.
    Can’t wait to read more.

    1. Hey Sepide joon! Thanks for reading this and sharing your thoughts. Yes, Team Melli has given Iran a badly needed public image boost.

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