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Soccer breeds nationalism and anti-regime protests in Iran

- June 15, 2014

Iran’s soccer fans protest their regime during a 2009 World Cup qualifying match in Seoul. (Ahn Young-joon/AP)
We continue our series on politics, political science and the World Cup (here are posts 12345,  6, and 7). Tomorrow Iran will open its 2014 World Cup campaign. Below Lars Rensmann and  Pejman Abdolmohammadi analyze how soccer has been a catalyst for nationalism as well as protests against the regime.
If you look at the fans in the stands of Iran’s opening World Cup match on Monday against Nigeria in the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, you are likely to see fans waving three different kinds of flags. They represent three different kinds of fans articulating distinct political and cultural identities. There are fans who bring the official flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the game. They tend to be either ordinary supporters or close to the regime, if not part of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) or the regime’s elite. Then there are those fans who carry the traditional flag with the image of a lion and the sun. These fans express clear opposition towards the theocratic regime. And then you will see fans who are using a “neutral” flag, without any signs in the center, or just with “Iran” written on it. Even though this final group seeks to be less partial than the second one, it ultimately also takes side because it challenges the existing Islamic Republic and its symbols by avoiding the sign of Allah. In other words, most Iranian fandom is politicized.
Indeed, after studying the evolution of local and national Iranian soccer culture and transgenerational fandom since the late 1990s, it is plausible to suggest that soccer has now become one of the most significant, contested and politicized arenas of Iranian social and cultural life. To a considerable extent this is because the dictatorial powers of the theocratic Iranian regime strictly and often violently control regular venues of political life, thereby violating human rights and suffocating civil society. It is no coincidence that the first social movement of the first Iranian post-revolutionary generation began in the aftermath of a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Australia in 1997. Following the elimination of Australia, hundreds of thousands young Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran to celebrate. This quickly turned into protests challenging the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) and its paramilitary Basij. Since that day, the Islamic Republic understood that soccer could threaten the stability of the regime. Consequently, over the past decade the Pasdaran sought to systematically increase its influence over all things soccer.
However, the peculiar appropriation of soccer as a political medium affects both fans and active players, and it involves both regime supporters and opponents acting domestically and abroad. Today the regime and dissidents alike recognize the relevance of sports, and soccer in particular, as a sociocultural activity and public arena in which political views find expression, especially if Iran plays abroad. All parties involved also understand that, in often subtle ways, soccer serves as domestic playing field to resignify a seemingly non-political sphere of competition, recharging it with political meaning under conditions of a repressive regime.
The Iranian national team, serving as a symbol for the country’s condition and standing and often playing abroad, is a focal point of this activity. Think of the politically charged World Cup game against the United States in 1998, or the way the images of Supreme Leader Khamenei and Ayatolloah Khomeni are displayed in Tehran’s Azadi stadium and by regime supporters in the ranks. (In 2006, Iran was even temporarily suspended from all FIFA competitions because of government interference in football matters.)
But think also of the green arm and wrist bands six national team players were wearing before a World Cup Qualifying match against South Korea in 2009, indicating support in the strongest symbolic terms for the “Green Movement” and the democratic unrest following the controversial presidential elections that year (four players — Ali Karimi, Mehdi Madavikia, Hosein Ka’abi and Vahid Hashemian — were subsequently “retired” from playing for Iran, although Karimi and Ka’abi returned to the national team soon thereafter).
Or think of the mass protests against Iran during the last World Cup for which Iran qualified, 2006 in Germany. Often soccer, and especially the national team, is also the site of unexpected organized as well as individual subversive actions against political repression and societal exclusion. Consider for instance when women illegally entered the stadium to watch World Cup qualifying matches, as narrated in the wonderful film “Offside,” directed by Jafar Panahi. All fan groups tend to appeal to nationalist sentiments, yet oppositional groups often challenge parochial national identity concepts and religious norms, and also mobilize universal human rights claims and cosmopolitan self-expression values.
The World Cup is the most visible forum for articulating the fundamental political conflict over the political reality and future of Iran as a theocracy or a secular republic. The World Cup directly caters to both the domestic and the global public. Recognizing soccer as a soft power tool, the Islamic Republic’s clerical regime wants to utilize this global arena and put the façade of glory and ambition of the IRI on display. It seeks to manufacture an alleged consensual regime support, signaled to the global and the domestic audience, by sending the Revolutionary Guard into the stands. And it aims at cushioning widespread disaffection and thus stabilizing itself by means of a symbolic cultural space many Iranians care about.
Yet, the regime and its supporters are also afraid of the World Cup. They are alerted by and highly sensitive to protests and subversive counter-politics that regularly pop up when you expect it the least. Such protest, individual and collective, in the streets of Tehran or in the stadiums in Belo Horizonte or Salvador da Bahia, can have massive international and domestic political ramifications for a still unstable regime. It therefore comes at no surprise that most broadcasts of the World Cup in public spaces in Tehran have reportedly been banned. While the games are shown on Iranian television and in some public parks, cafe owners have been sent texts saying they have to close at midnight, and there is also a broadcasting ban in mixed-gender movie theaters (there will be no separate screenings either). According to the restaurant union, owners can take the risk of screening the games as long as they “maintain crowd control.”
At any rate, the creativity of Iranian protestors should not be underestimated, and the regime cannot fully control the fan base abroad. Right now, there are vivid discussions in various forums among Iranian dissidents in exile and at home about actions at the World Cup, and what will happen in the stands. It is an open question what the impact of this public struggle will be, and how it plays out, during the 2014 World Cup. Stay tuned.
 Lars Rensmann is associate professor of political science and the chair of the Department of Political Science and International Affairs at John Cabot University in Rome. His publications include “Gaming the World: How Sports Are Reshaping Global Politics and Culture” (co-authored with Andrei S. Markovits). Pejman Abdolmohammadi is adjunct professor and postdoctoral research fellow of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Genoa. His many publications on Iran include the book “La Repubblica Islamica dell’Iran: il pensiero politico dell’Ayatollah Khomeini.”