When Iran’s National Football Team qualified for the World Cup, it was all the more satisfying that we made it despite: despite sanctions, despite isolation, despite internal political division, despite Trump. “A week ago we’d walk into the office every morning and soberly discuss currency depreciation,” the owner of a business that designs and prints logos on boxes told me, just days into the World Cup. “Now we talk about the games.” Relatives facing frequent water cuts in the southwestern Khuzestan province told me that even the 149 degree Fahrenheit heat wave becomes tolerable during competitions. There is comfort in a game to be watched and a score to be settled on a field; for a few hours, our weary battles can be fought by “Team Melli,” the affectionate name for our national team.
Iranians looked forward to the tournament with a mixture of hope for victory and fear of defeat; “I go between wanting Iran to beat Spain, one of the best in the world, and also not get crushed 20–0,” as one fan put it. No wonder; for all its success, the team has faced obstacles. Since Trump announced the end of the nuclear deal, sanctions were on everyone’s minds, and our Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, lashed out against the problems the sanctions created for his players: friendly matches with Greece and Kosovo had been canceled, a company to sponsor the team’s jerseys couldn’t be found, and just days before the first game, Nike announced that it would no longer provide shoes.
Perhaps because of the proliferation of cafés in recent years, this World Cup was more public than ever before; in the past, we’d never had any option but to watch at home. Iran’s first game, against Morocco, was shown in parks around the country, including Tehran’s Nahjol Balaghe Park and Isfahan’s Soffeh Park, with thousands in attendance. In early May, it had been announced that cafés and movie theaters would be allowed to screen matches, and though Tehran’s police chief later announced that cafés would have to apply for permits on a case-by-case basis, the screenings went ahead. At most screening locations, Iran matches required reservations made well in advance, even at Soffeh Park. Cafés charged a fee for viewers, from 3,000 tomans downtown to 150,000 uptown (from about 70¢ to about $35). At night, when the games were aired, cafés took on the ambiance of sports bars, minus the alcohol, and the cigarette smoke would be so thick and intense that the screen could get blurred in the haze.
My 78-year-old great-aunt sent messages to the entire family before Iran’s game against Morocco: “the young” could go and watch the match with their friends, she said, but she hoped we would all gather at her home—with her cooking!—so the family could “watch and pray” together. My uncle brought out his flat-screen TV, and 40 of us sat down, scattered on the floor and on plastic lawn chairs. Each time Iran had the ball, my aunt would recite Ayatol Korsi, the 255th verse of the 2nd surah of the Koran, used by some believers to thwart the evil eye. When Morocco’s Bouhaddouz scored an own goal in extra time, giving Iran the win, my aunt declared herself vindicated, with tears in her eyes: “I told you we needed to pray together.”
I watched Iran’s match with Spain at Panjereh Café, a large downtown basement location near the University of Tehran. The café had gained such a following among fans that the owners—three sisters—advised us to arrive four hours in advance (even with a reservation). And so, for the 10:30 p.m. kickoff time, we arrived at 7 to an already packed house. As we sat chatting and waiting, sitting on mix of ’70s-era vintage Polish seats and newly upholstered wingback chairs, the best-selling menu item was Ma o Shaeer—a nonalcoholic beer made in Holland—served on a tray of chips, olives, and peanuts.
One of the owners had collapsed the back of her loafers as she bustled around the large café space, taking orders, picking up used cups, and chatting with guests. She wore a T-shirt with the word love in orange-colored letters, a loose neon-mustard shirt, and polka-dot leggings; a scarf casually hung on top of her beach-blond hair, tied in multiple dutch braids. Her dark roots were showing, but there’s no time these days to get a fix, she told me with a grin. When I joined her for a cigarette break, she had a nervous expression, and I asked her why she was worried. “This,” she said, pointing to her cigarette. Cafés allow smoking inside, though it’s formally banned. The same with showing the games: though I’ve never heard of it actually happening, the authorities could walk in and close them down. They haven’t, so far. Earlier in the day, the sisters got a text message from the café-owners union, telling them not to show the games. They were going to anyway, in a haze of cigarette smoke, but would worry in the meantime.
For café owners, the World Cup is a chance to recover financially from the Ramadan downturn, during which cafés can operate only between iftar—when the fast is broken, around nine p.m.—and midnight. Revenue drops nearly to zero. “This is a much-needed opportunity to make up for a lost month,” one of the sisters told me, “even though we always have to think about a backlash.” And so, before the game, she got up on a stool and asked that everyone “be calm and considerate.” Everyone knew what she meant—put out your cigarettes, don’t yell too loud, keep your head-scarves on—and they abided.
Iran lost to Spain, in the end; but there are two scores to every game, what the fans believe and the number on the scoreboard. At 62 minutes, Iran’s Saeed Ezatollahi scored a goal from close range past Spain’s de Gea, but the game was stopped for a VAR (video assistant) check. Our screams of joy were killed halfway: the goal was announced offside. The crowd in the café chanted “Marg Bar VAR” (death to VAR), but the score remained 1–0 for the duration of the game. We walked out onto Enghelab Square to dancing crowds and honking cars. The game was a tie so far as we were concerned; we had finished 1–1 with a previous World Cup champion. We were proud of Iran.
If the men’s team has struggled in the world, the women’s team still struggles in Iran. Just weeks before the World Cup in Russia began—the Men’s World Cup, perhaps we should say—the Iranian women’s futsal team beat Japan to be crowned champions of Asia. Their match was not aired on national TV. “We play, we win, but we are not even seen,” wrote Footlady, a popular women’s sports social media site.
Women struggle to be seen in sports in more ways than one. A few days before the World Cup, an enormous poster was installed in the western corner of Valiasr Square, a central commercial district, showing a close-packed crowd of Iranian men—in differing garb, indicating differing ethnicities—all cheering the national football team together. The words “We are champions together: one nation, one heartbeat” were boldly written at the bottom. There was an immediate outcry over the exclusion of women’s faces, and not only on social media; one newspaper ran a front-page article on the billboard, with the headline “We Lose Without Women.” Altered versions of the poster, with women’s faces pasted in, were circulated widely:
In response to the outcry, the poster was changed to one that featured five Team Melli players standing in a line that continued with ordinary citizens—men and women both—stretching off into the horizon. All had their hands on their hearts, as if reciting the national anthem. But this time, a new controversy: the team picture left out Masoud Shojaei, Iran’s captain, who had been threatened with suspension following a game with an Israeli club when he was serving as a midfielder for the Panionios FC in Greece. Another poster shortly followed: this time, an image of a single player, drawn knees down, kicking the World Cup football on the field. Men, women, and children cheer him on in the background, but their features are lost in the crowd. With the exclusion of faces, it seems, peace was made.
Of course, one advertisement created an interesting lack of controversy: a video-sharing site ran billboards across Tehran’s highways featuring Niloufar Ardalan, the former captain of Iran’s women’s national football team. Prior to this, it was an unwritten rule that images of women on public billboards had to be accompanied by something: a child, a man, a tree. But she stands there, grinning, wearing the national jersey and holding the ball. In her confident smile, there is a recognition of women athletes not seen in Iran. Ardalan, along with other team members, promoted women sportscasters with a hashtag on Instagram, encouraging women to post videos of themselves giving running commentary to World Cup football games, with a winner to be announced at the end of July.
Internet TV websites have also given women new ground. Elham Farahmand, a midfielder with the national football team, launched a sports talk show on the internet TV service Aparat, and the actress Azadeh Samadi was tapped to lead a live World Cup program with interviews and football-focused specials on Aionet, a TV streaming service owned by IRIB, Iran’s state-sponsored TV network. Samadi hosted three episodes before she was replaced by a male actor; IRIB, known for its conservative base, was met with backlash and quickly replaced her. Still, Niloufar Ardalan will be hosting IRIB’s first-ever women’s sports show on Channel 2, airing this month.
Though women are playing games, winning cups, and broadcasting, they are still barred from watching football games live. Officially, anyway; a week into the World Cup, the head of Tehran’s Azadi Sports Complex—housing Iran’s largest open-air stadium—told ISNA News Agency that “families” would be allowed to see the games screened live at Azadi. “Families” was a code word for women. Two female MPs, Parvaneh Salahshouri and Tayebeh Siavashi, members of Parliament’s cultural committee, had been personally pursuing women’s admission to Azadi, with the blessing of the president. A 13,000-square-foot screen was set up in Azadi, and tickets were sold on cinematicket.org. Siavashi and Salahshouri were in attendance for Iran’s second game against Spain. Afterward, Mohsen Hashemi, head of Tehran’s City Council, said in a speech that he hoped “Azadi’s doors would remain open.”
Before I went to Azadi to see Iran play Portugal, I had been there only once before: on a grade-nine field trip, we were bused there to hear a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader. My main memories are of the giant bags of Cheetos we consumed while driving to and from the stadium. Schools across the city had been brought into the 100,000-capacity stadium, and I remember walking into a row of broken plastic seats (Azadi has since undergone renovation) and looking out on the unkept grassy field, wondering: This, this is what we are killing ourselves to see? I couldn’t be bothered.
On the night of the game, we arrived two hours early to an already packed house. Twelve thousand tickets had been sold, and many were being resold at the front door, at ten times the price. Before the game started, the girls next to me, cousins, offered us chips, sunflower seeds, and those infamous cheese puffs. To my left, there was a couple with their three-year old daughter, wearing an Esteghlal jersey (one of Tehran’s most popular football teams).
The game was tense. Iran needed to win to make it to the next round, and the possibility did not seem far-fetched, given its strong performance against Spain. For a while, Iran’s defense held up. But just before halftime, Portuguese midfielder Ricardo Quaresma scored a perfect goal from the upper corner. The crowd, the drums, the entire stadium went dead silent. Could the team recover?
But at 53 minutes, the referee stopped the game; after a quick walk to the video assistant, he called a penalty shot for Portugal. After the loss to Spain, Iranians were convinced that VAR was designed only to undermine their game, and insults—both printable and non—were being hurled at the referee across the stadium. When Ronaldo went to stand behind the ball, the game was over; Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, wouldn’t stand a chance. “Mellat-e badbakhtim!” the girl next to me screamed as Ronaldo went in to shoot: “We’re the unfortunate nation!” And then, Beiranvand jumped to the left, pushing the ball back; as it fell to the ground, he jumped ferociously on it, grasping the ball tight. The crowd roared. The father next to me was so teary eyed that his wife teased him. “Look!” the mother told their three-year old. “Boys cry too sometimes!”
The rest of the game passed without incident, ending in a 1–1 draw. In a non-call that will remain controversial, Ronaldo escaped a red card for elbowing (and Carlos Queiroz’s tirade was one for the ages). We left the stadium with no loss, no victory, but plenty of indignation. Thousands of us walked out onto the street through a long dark tunnel, lost in the all-consuming blow of horns and chants of Iraa-a-a-n. The trumpet of God seemed to be calling out the Day of Judgment: Iran gave its best World Cup performance in recent history, and women were allowed inside Iran’s largest stadium for the first time in decades.
When we emerged onto the street, we knew, of course, that Iran would not make it into the next round; we knew that we could expect the bar on women from live games to continue. The challenges we’d faced before the World Cup would still be there, waiting; now that the games had been watched and the scores settled on the field, reality would return. For all the miles we’d run in the past two weeks, the Cup was now over. Outside Azadi’s gates, a reality undisturbed by games awaited us. But for a moment, just a moment, we lingered, lost in the crowd.