By Roddy Forsyth
07 Mar 2008
The possibility that Scotland could play in Tehran at the end of May conjures intriguing possibilities, especially if President Ahmadinejad has given the game his blessing – as surely he must, if it is to go ahead.
Scottish fans’ forum
This is a situation which an unorthodox leader, frequently at odds with his domestic media, yet careful about his own image – his public appearances, minus tie, are iconic – may fancy he can exploit to considerable gain.
That much we know about Gordon Smith. Yesterday, though, the Scottish Football Association chief executive was canny about the chance of playing in a country run by what many in the west consider a pariah regime.
The Tehran Times reported Mehdi Taj, spokesman of the Iranian Football Association, as saying that Scotland, Colombia, Mali, Ecuador, Nigeria and Uruguay have all invited Iran to play friendlies in April and May.
Iran, like Scotland, have a new coach who wants to test the strength and depth of the squad he has inherited, but Smith was swift to rebut one significant detail in Taj’s statement.
“We have not asked Iran to play us – we were approached, through an agent, to see whether we would consider playing them,” said Smith. “It hasn’t even been specified that the game would be in Iran, though that seems to be the case.
“If we are invited to play in Tehran, we would give the matter proper consideration. We would have to look at the financial guarantees as well as whether it would suit George Burley and his players, but first and foremost, we would have to know whether the Foreign Office would sanction it.”
Scotland have been down this road before and then, as now, a World Cup was in view. In 1977 Scotland toured South America with a view to preparing for the finals in Argentina the following year.
The fact that the opening game was in Chile sparked a vigorous controversy. Although the government was of a very different stripe from that of Ahmadinejad – Augusto Pinochet came to power through a US-backed coup against the democratically elected Salvador Allende – there was considerable revulsion in Britain about the military dictator’s treatment of opponents.
For Scotland to play in the Chile Stadium in Santiago particularly inflamed critics at home. The arena had been used for torture and executions and it was widely reported that the popular Chilean songwriter, Victor Jara, had been shot in one of the goalmouths.
Whether or not this detail was strictly accurate, it was certainly true that, along with thousands of other political prisoners, Jara was taken to the stadium, beaten and finally machine-gunned, before his body was dumped on the outskirts of the capital.
In one sense it was he who prevailed, because the ground is now known as the Estadio Victor Jara and has become a shrine to his memory.
In 1977 there was vociferous condemnation of Scotland for playing on turf that had literally been drenched in blood. The principal accusation was that the Scots’ appearance would be seen as an endorsement of the Pinochet regime – or, at least, it would be presented as such by the junta.
Ernie Walker, then the SFA secretary, was as forceful in pressing on with the tour as the critics were in opposing it. His argument was that football teams, including Scotland, played in countries with all manner of governments and practices that would not be acceptable at home and that the aim of the tour was to acclimatise Ally MacLeod’s players to the conditions they might encounter a year later.
In that respect the tour was a failure, although it began with an emphatic 4-2 win over Chile and continued with a 1-1 draw in Argentina. The final result, a 2-0 defeat by Brazil, was not thought to be damaging.
In fact, the Scots had peaked too early, as would be seen the following year when MacLeod’s squad were humiliated, first in a 3-1 defeat by Peru and then by Iran, who scored both goals in a 1-1 draw, first when Andaranik Eskandarian put through his own net and then when Iraj Danaeifard became the first Iranian to score against an opposition team in the finals of a World Cup.
Given that this year marks the 30th anniversary of Danaeifard’s feat, maybe President Ahmadinejad sniffs the chance to rake up the memory of a famous humiliation for a western power – or one that deluded itself into believing that it was, in the football sense.
Meanwhile, another hazard awaits Smith and the SFA. The Scottish football media now contains its share of women football reporters. Maybe they would be prepared to cover their hair and head to walk in the street, in accordance with Iranian custom, but what are the chances they would be allowed to see the game?
Although there have been exceptions, Iran bans women from witnessing football matches. As for the rules governing male attire, short-sleeved shirts are out and shorts are a strict no-no.On the other hand, the issue of women’s membership nearly ripped apart the Scottish Football Writers Association a few years ago.
And the arrival of thousands of Tartan Army troopers, whose dress code insists on short-sleeved replica tops and kilts worn strictly commando-style, would be a culture shock of unprecedented proportions.
It could even topple Ahmadinjead’s tottery government.
In fact, what Gordon Smith should beware is not so much a Foreign Office veto, as active encouragement from that quarter, especially if they think it will save the cost of an invasion further down the line.
If Scotland do go to Tehran, may I suggest that the in-flight movie should be ‘Offside’, released last year by the Iranian director, Jafar Panahi.
Panahi took a group of girls – real fans, not actresses – into the Iran-Bahrein World Cup qualifier.
The girls were disguised as boys but it was the filmmakers themselves who were almost arrested while they shot their footage inside the ground.
The movie is now out on DVD and is especially gripping when you know the risks involved for everybody who took part.
Needless to say, it has yet to be screened in Tehran’s Odeons.
Closer to home, proof of our own fans’ political awareness was offered outside the Nou Camp stadium prior Barcelona’s Champions League tie with Celtic on Tuesday.
As news of Gordon Strachan’s shock decision to drop his top scorer, Scott McDonald, spread among the Hoops faithful one fan asked his mate: “Do you think that’s why Ian Paisley resigned?”
Spectators thronging the catering area of the Nou Camp’s main stand were treated to the sight of the Daily Mirror’s affable Scottish football correspondent, Iain Campbell, standing with his arm held high alongside a popcorn machine. On being asked to explain this curious behaviour, Iain – known as Scramble to his media brethren – disclosed that he was sporting a watch that energised itself with sunlight, but that the unexpected cold snap that afflicted Catalonia had deprived him of his source of power.
However, the popcorn machine had one of those heat lamps designed to keep the food cooking, which he was trying to use to get his watch going again.
Against all the odds – and the mockery of his colleagues – Scramble had the last laugh as his bizarre scheme actually succeeded.