Tag: Persian Gulf League

FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifiers may be held behind closed doors.

With COVID19 still prevalent, Team Melli is likely to play the rest of FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers behind closed doors.

After months of uncertainty following of the postponement of the qualifiers, the schedule for the second round of the FIFA World Cup 2022 qualifiers in the Asian Zone was announced, and Iran will play four crucial matches in October and November this year. However, the venues have not yet been announced yet by the World Football Governing body and AFC, and it is unclear whether the games will be hosted by the home team as standard, and whether spectators will be allowed entry into the venues. There is a possibility that the rest of the qualifiers will be played in a third country behind closed doors.

This possibility of action by FIFA and AFC is due to the continuing outbreak of coronavirus in different countries of the world. Corona is currently on the rise in some countries, and experts predict that the spread of the disease will worsen in the fall, and health protocols need to be implemented more vigorously. In this regard, the head of the UEFA Medical Committee announced that all national games will be held in the fall without spectators and that fans will not be able to return to the stadiums at the moment.

Such ruling by the Europeans could also be implemented in Asia which would practically deny the Iranian fans from attending matches in Azadi.

 * Effect of behind closed door games on Team Melli Chances.

Is this ban complicating Team Melli’s chances of qualifying? Although FIFA will announce its decisions after consulting with local confederations, it is clear that some Asian countries are less prepared than the Europeans and developed countries in terms of health protocols. As a result, due to the Iranian Premier League games being played behind closed doors, the AFC may not allow Iran to host spectators in the fall, and the national team will be forced to face its rivals without the support of the fans. Iranian fans have been a hallmark of Team Melli’s success throughout the years.

The players and managers have bee counting of home advantage in their remaining games specifically against Bahrain and Iraq, the two contenders of this group.

Due to the fact that Team Melli has played three away games, the matched in Tehran without the presence of spectators will be slightly in favor of the rivals. Currently, Iran is in third place in its group due to poor results of the previous round and the loss against Bahrain and Iraq under former coach Marc Wilmots. Iram has 4 points less than its two group leaders, namely Iraq and Bahrain.

Accordingly, the schedule of the Iranian national football team’s return matches was announced as follows:

Iran – Hong Kong (Thursday, October 8)

Cambodia – Iran (Tuesday, October 13)

Iran – Bahrain (Thursday, November 12)

Iran – Iraq (Tuesday, November 17)

Dragan Skočić appointed as Head Coach of Team Melli

The Croat coach Dragan Skočić has been appointed as the new head coach of Team Melli on Thursday.

The 51 years old Croatian has just resigned from his post as head coach of Persian Gulf League club Sanat Naft after a long dispute with the Abadani club for their failure to respect the contract and failure to provide proper support for the team.

A day after Dragan Skočić announced his departure from Sanat Naft Abadan, he was appointed as Team Melli head coach.

Skočić first arrived in Iran in 2013 where he coached Malavan Anzali where he could not have much success with the team. Next season he was recruited by Foolad Khuzestan where he remained for two seasons and managed to improve the results of the team but still could not win them any trophies. He left Iran in 2016.

In 2018 Skočić turned up again in Iran where he took over the coached of Azadegan league side Khooneh be Khooneh. A season later 2019 he was coaching  Sanat Naft Abadan in July before he resigned his post on 4th February 2020.

Zlatko Kranjcar with Dragan Skocic in a league match encounter
Zlatko Kranjcar (left) with Dragan Skocic (Right) in a league match encounter

During his long managerial career, in Croatia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, Skočić managed only a single achievement with his home club Rijeka, winning the Croatian Cup for the 2005–06 season.

Team Melli is the first National Team coaching experience of Dragan Skočić

Teymourian joins Machine Sazi

Team Melli Captain has signed for newly promoted Machine Sazi club of Tabriz,

The much traveled Andranik Teymourian has signed a short-term contract with Saipa last season after he left QSL team Um Salal . Despite his initial good impact with Siapa , Teymourian’s season was marred by injuries rendering him ineffective for the team last season.

This will be the second Tabrizi team for Teymourian, He has played for city rivals Tractorsazi before.

Machine Sazi , currently coached by ex-Team Melli forward Rasoul Khatibi , was promoted to the  Persian Gulf Pro League in 2016,  after a 19-year absence from the top flight of Iranian football. 

They play their home games in Bagh Shomal stadium with a 25,000 seats capacity.

Team Melli Armenia and Austria training camps are called off.

Team Mell proposed training camps in Armenia and Austria has been called off after Branko Ivankovic and Amir Ghalenoei have refused to release their players to Team Melli according to Carlos Queiroz.

“If we fail to qualify for the World Cup, then you better go and ask Ivankovic and Ghalenoei” the Portuguese head coach of Team Melli told reporters.

Incidentally, after Portugal defeat against Portugal and elimination from World Cup 2010, Cristiano Ronaldo was asked about that loss, to which he replied: “Ask Queiroz.” Now Queiroz is borrowing Ronaldo punch line against his nemeses!!

The bulk of the problem seems to be the uncoordinated Team Melli plans that Queiroz decides unilaterally without reference and consent of the league clubs. While the Persian Gulf League is about to start in earnest and during the height of preparation, Queiroz training plans disrupts the clubs plans. On top of that, Team Melli camps seem to last weeks. Armenia and Austria camps would have lasted two weeks each, meaning the clubs would have lost the services of their players for a whole month at a critical time when most needed for league matches!

What inflamed Ivankovic further was Queiroz refusal to allow Team Melli players go through the mandatory pre-season medical examination.

Ghalenoei joined Ivankovic in refusing the Team Melli laid down plans and criticized the way his players are being manipulated and disruption to his own training program.

When asked to respond to Queiroz harsh words against him and Ghalenoei , Branko Ivankovic said “Persepolis is my team and I am responsible and accountable for its results. When I lose , I take responsibility and NOT blame others and that is the same way I operated for 5 years as Team Melli coach. I am responsible and no one else for the team results. My manner and upbringing does not allow me to respond to slanders.”

“There is no good national team without strong clubs and competitive league.” Ivankovic said.



Daei scathing attack on Iran’s football regulations


The peculiar and unique regulations of some of the football laws in Iran, has resulted in a scathing criticism by the outspoken Ali Daei.

The ex-Team Melli captain and the world’s top international goal scoring record holder is currently the head coach of Saba Qom. In his short tenure with Saba , he has masterfully managed to create a solid team that has been climbing up the league table all the way as high as number 3.

Ali Daei was furious after the federation has ruled against Saba Qom using Farid Karimi in the match against Malavan Anzali and the forthcoming top of the table clash against Esteghlal Tehran. Karimi was undergoing the mandatory 2 years Military Service. During this time, Tractorasazi , managed to secure his services as a football player The team from Tabriz is among the few authorized clubs in Iran who are allowed to register  players during their 2 years’ service while they are denied the chance of playing for their team. Karimi has finished his Military Service in September and as such he should have been released to his original club, Saba Qom.  Tractorsazi , however, did not release Karimi until November!

Daei questioned several acts of injustice,  according to him , that resulted in his team being knocked out of the Hazfi cup. “In which system would you find a player that belongs to the club, who has been promoted through the ranks of the club, and gets his wages from the club, conveniently turns up for the opposition and plays  in an important game in a cup competition ? ”  Daei said in a pre- match press conference today.

“Mr. Hassanzadeh, the head of the Disciplinary committee, claims that in certain cases his committee has the right to arbitrate. I want to ask him, on what basis he intervenes and approves a sanction against my player, while the law very clear states that as soon as the player has finished his service, he is free to play with his club. What part of this law is confusing to Hassanzadeh in order for him to intervene and issue a contradicting order?”

“This system of playing for a military Club is unique to Iran and quite unfair.” Daei added.

Ali Daei , is part of increasingly large number of footballers, coaches and administrators who are critical of this system of Military teams getting unfair advantage by using players of other teams. However, only a few have been  vocal about it, Ali Daei being one of them. The ex-Persepolis and Bayern Munich players is one important personality in Iran’s football whose words can make a difference.

In the Persian Gulf League , Saba Qom is currently lying fourth in the table with 25 points. Daei’s team will be facing Esteghlal Tehran lying second with 27 points on Thursday.

Persian Gulf League in action again.

The 15th season of Iran’s premiere league (Persian Gulf Professional League) will start in earnest from tomorrow Thursday 30th July 2015.

16 teams will be battling it out for the ultimate prize of lifting the Championship title and challenging the holder Sepahan Esfahan, the team with the most honors in the history of the league. The Esfahani team has been consistently challenging for the title since the start of the new league system, and has managed to win a record breaking 5 titles with 1 runner up and one third place positions. As such Foolad Mobarekeh Sepahan is the most decorated team of the league.

Sepahan won the league in style

The Defending Champions

No doubt that Sepahan will continue on the same trail this season with nearly same squad that won the title in the previous season under the leadership of Coach Hossein Faraki. The ex-Team Melli striker is building a deservedly good reputation for himself in Iran’s football by winning his second title in a row with two different clubs. The soft spoken coach has kept faith in the title winning squad and refrained from indulging in any business in the transfer market. No doubt that a fit again Navidkia will assist Sepahan further in this edition. The frail and injury prone Captain of the team was absent for many matches last season.


Branko Ivankovic ^ Ali Daei 2006
Branko Ivankovic Persepolis Coach


Persepolis, the most popular team in Iran along with Esteghlal, have been having torrid few seasons with changes in personnel occurring on regular basis. This club has so disappointed it millions of fans that the usual crowd of red army that used to paint Azadi in red has virtually disappeared. The Club numerous problems off the field, was further complicated the issue by some on the field transgressions of some players acting unruly and suffering from ill- disciplined. Poor appointments in coaching and administrative staff has furthered deteriorated the team to the extent that it was fighting for survival near the end of the last league season. Branko Ivankovic was recruited to replace the struggling Hamid Derakhshan. The Croat has maintained the league status of Persepolis and avoided the relegation, however, this season, there is little indication that the team will be decidedly better than last season.

Esteghlal goals rush unlikely

The Blues of Esteghlal

Esteghlal, forever a title contender, had a disappointing last season under Amir Ghalenoei who was eventually replaced by Parviz Mazloomi. The club has a tendency to stick to its own and picks coaches from the plethora of ex and retired players rather than seek professional and experienced coaches elsewhere. Mazloomi last stint as Esteghlal coach ended bitterly when bad results and losses against much weaker teams started a semi revolt in the stands by the blues fan who demanded his removal. The squad for this season has not seen major changes however the loss of two Team Melli players in Sadeghi and Beigzadeh to Saba and lack of real fire power in the offensive line could limit the chance of Esteghlal in challenging for the title.

Like Persepolis, Esteghlal is another organization in real administrative, financial and ,management difficulties.

[box title=”

Leauge Stats

” style=”soft” box_color=”#c8c8ba” title_color=”#0d0c0c” radius=”5″]You can follow the Persian Gulf Pro League results and tables in www. teammelli.com all the time. Simply check the “Supplements” menu and select Persian Gulf League , or go to https://www.teammelli.com/the-persian-gulf-league[/box]

The League Committee

Despite gradual improvements in the organization of the league each new season, football in Iran is still behind the overall standard of rival Asian countries and the neighboring Persian Gulf states. Most of the facilities and the stadiums lack the international standards. Mercifully, AFC pressure has forced the Iranian authorities into action. The Asian ruling body plays a major role in forcing the Iranians to improve standards and facilities like the recent ruling by the AFC and insistence to install seats in the stadiums rather than the fans endure the hardship od sitting on scorching cement slabs.

One of the weaknesses of last season was the periodical stoppage of the season for Team Melli training camps which resulted in unanimous outcry by the coaches and teams. Those league stoppages were demanded by Carlos Queiroz as conditional for Team Melli survival in the World Cup. With no World Cup in 2016 , it is hoped that the season will continue without much interruption that hurts team’ momentum.

The blues



Last season suffered from lack of interest by the fans. Factors that has affected the poor attendances varied amongst the major ones were; shortages of quality games, dearth of exciting players or games to attract the crowds, failure of the two most popular teams to shine which dampened the enthusiasm of their huge number of followers, match organizers lack of respect and appreciation of fans comfort and finally the broadcast of major European leagues matches on TV. Sepahan traditional never matched the fans base of the big two and their remote stadium has played a major role in the paltry attendance figures. The only team that made a difference and kept the league stands alive was Tractorsazi with its phenomenal and passionate crowds. No team has away travelling support either as the team from Tabriz. This season, despite the disappointing finish of last, should see the Azerbaijani fans flocking back once again to the Yadegar Imam stadium. The rest of the stadiums in Iran are a matter of hit and miss.

Celebration Tractorsazi style

Broadcast rights.

 Amongst the peculiarities of football in Iran is the TV and non-payment of broadcast fees.

In Iran, there is one government owned and run organization that has unjustifiably and unfairly taken full advantage of football enjoying a free ride for decades without paying anything in return. IRIB, the TV and Radio monopoly, has flatly refused to entertain any demands for payment to the league clubs or the FFIRI for broadcasting league or Team Melli matches a system that is globally implemented. IRIB, argues that it is providing a free service for fans and clubs alike and not charging the viewers, so it does not find any justification for paying while it is not charging subscription fees. In the in the contrary, IRIB thinks that it has to be paid because it is doing a favor for the clubs!.

IRIB conveniently, opportunistically and deviously ignored the millions of dollars that it has received from TV advertisers when broadcasting football matches.

This stand of arrogance and egotism by IRIB resulted in tension in the league and spilled out in the parliament and the media with various heated debates. IRIB is an organization which is strongly supported and protected by the by the highest of the hierarchy in the regime. It has dodged all attempts by all sides including the Iranian parliament to pay for broadcasting rights that is believed to have earned it coffers millions of dollars in return. Even an attempt to a TV black out and ban of cameras in stadiums, which only lasted for one round, did not dislodge the IRIB from its position. The IRIB simply brushed such a move as a minor inconvenience!

Good news of this season, however, is that IRIB finally agreed to pay for the broadcast of matches. The figures are closely kept secret and many insiders believe that it is nowhere near the true value of the league. In any case, it is a step forward and this might be a beginning of a new era for many clubs with huge financial difficulties (read the majority of the clubs) to get some return from TV broadcast rights.

Team Melli Players

10 out of the 32 players that donned Iran’s Team Melli jersey have changed club so far. There are expected to be a few more changes as several players have not agreed terms with their present clubs while many other countries have not started the season yet..


The full list of Team Melli player is as follows:


# Players Name Previous Team Current Team
1 AMIRI, Vahid Naft Tehran Naft Tehran
2 ANSARIFARD, Karim Osasuna Rah Ahan
3 AZMOUN, Sardar FC Rostov FC Rostov
4 BEIGZADEH, Hashim Esteghlal Saba Qom
5 BIRANVAND, Alireza Naft Tehran Naft Tehran
6 DEJAGAH, Ashkan Al Arabi Al Arabi
7 EBRAHIMI, Omid Esteghlal Esteghlal
8 EZZATOLLAHI, Saeid Athletico Madrid FC Rostov
9 FOROUZAN, Mohsen Esteghlal Esteghlal
10 GHAFOORI, Vourya Sepahan Esfahan Sepahan Esfahan
11 GHOOCHANNEJAD, Reza Al Wakra Al Wakra
12 HAGHIGHI, Alireza FC Penafiel  FC Penafiel 
13 HAJSAFY, Ehsan Sepahan Esfahan Sepahan Esfahan
14 HASSANZADEH, Masoud Zob Ahan Zob Ahan
15 HEYDARI, Khosrow Esteghlal Esteghlal
16 HOSSEINI, Jalal Al Ahli Naft Tehran
18 KANANI, Mohammad Hossein Malavan Malavan
19 KHANZADEH, Mohammadreza Persepolis Foolad Kuzestan
20 MOHAMMADI, Milad Rah Ahan Rah Ahan
21 MONTAZERI, Pejman Umm Salal Al Ahli
22 NEKOUNAM, Javad Osasuna Saipa
23 POOLADI, Mehrdad Al Shahaniya Al Shahaniya
24 POURALIGANJI, Morteza Tianjin Teda Tianjin Teda
25 RAFIEI, Sourosh Foolad Khuzestan Foolad Khuzestan
26 REZAEIAN, Ramin Rah Ahan Persepolis
27 SADEGHI, AmirHossein Esteghlal Saba Qom
28 SHARIFI, Mehdi Sepahan Esfahan Sepahan Esfahan
29 SHOJAEI, Masoud Al Shahaniya Al Shahaniya
30 TAREMI, Mehdi Persepolis Persepolis
31 TEYMOURIAN, Andranik Tractorsazi Tabriz Umm Salal
32 TORABI, Mehdi Saipa Saipa

Putting Iran’s football name into disrepute

Jlloyd Samuel , a sad saga.

A disturbing interview with Trinidadian footballer Jlloyed Samuel conducted by ISNA news agency highlighted the degree at which Iranian football chiefs and administrators has put Iran’s name into disrepute.

Jlloyed Samuel the ex-Esteghlal player who currently plays for the relegated team Peykan , in Iran Persian Gulf League is virtually a prisoner in Iran and not allowed to leave due to that renowned charge of Income Tax evasion by footballers.

“Not only, Esteghlal has not paid my salaries, and that was the major reason that I left them, they have also ceased paying the income tax on my behalf that was part of their contractual obligation. As such I am not able to leave the country until this matter is sorted out” a despairing Samuel told ISNA.

“I am in frequent contact with Esteghlal management and all I hear repeatedly are promises one after another. Nothing but false promises and false hopes. I reached a stage that I was having difficulty making ends meet. I had no choice but to file an official complaint against Esteghlal with FIFA. The verdict was very clear in my benefit, yet Esteghlal has still not paid me.” Samuel said.

“I have a problem with Peykan as well but hope that at least with this club, matters do not reach FIFA as I hope that an amicable solution is reached. I am a professional player who came to Iran to work and earn money; I have to be paid like any other professional. When a footballer is not paid his due, it is impossible for him to concentrate and give his best while playing. His mind will always be occupied. Performance in football is not just about the physical state of a player but also his mental state. So many problems are piling up on me because of lack of money. I don’t understand why this is happening in Iran. People like me come here to give their best and expect to be rewarded and paid, I enjoyed playing in Esteghlal and loved Iran I loved the fans, but slowly this feeling turned into a nightmare. It cannot be good for Iran’s football reputation at all.”

“It is a joke that I am now being held here against my well. I am not an Iranian citizen and I need to go back to my family and country. I have sought diplomatic counseling and been advised to amicably sort out the issue first, before the diplomats escalate the issue and it becomes embarrassing.”

Carlos Queiroz was the last victim of the tax authority as his employer has neglected to pay his taxes. Queiroz was banned from traveling before some temporary payment helped to lift the travel ban.

 Yet again, Iranian football management has miserably failed, not only professionally but also ethically and honorably. The incompetency and corruption of managers reaches its peak at Esteghlal and Persepolis clubs, both owned , managed and controlled by the government. No wonder that the owner wants to rid itself from these two clubs.

Source: ISNA

Mullahs in the Midfield

How sanctions and politics scuttled Iran’s World Cup ambitions. – John Duerden


[column size=”1/2″] Last June, Iran and South Korea qualified for the 2014 World Cup within seconds of each other. Yet just a month out from the tournament, Korea had played 14 warm-up games while Iran had only managed to arrange one, a March defeat to Guinea — hardly a major soccer power. The light schedule is not the product of choice. Rather, U.S.-led sanctions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions have taken their toll on the country’s football program — which is why the footy faithful are watching Iran’s negotiations with the group of world powers known as the P5+1 with almost as much interest as the start of the big tournament itself.

If Iran and the West can hash out a comprehensive nuclear agreement in the coming months, it will be great news for football fans, even if it’s too late to boost the Iranian squad’s prospects in this World Cup. “None of the promises turned into realities,” said Javad Nekounam, Iran’s captain, in May. “If we did not have good preparation games until the games start, there shouldn’t be any expectations. Whatever happens, the authorities must be held responsible for the results.”

Isolation from the international community has cost the Islamic Republic when it comes to the sport it cares about most. Forget wrestling — it’s soccer that the majority of Iran’s 80 million citizens really get excited about. On Monday, June 16, the country’s national squad will kick off its fourth World Cup, aiming to reach the second round for the first time. To do so, it must finish second in a group containing Argentina, Bosnia, and Nigeria — tough, but not impossible.

The road has been tougher than it needed to be. The Iranian Football Federation (IFF), the body that oversees all football activity in the country, has struggled to collect funds owed to it by international organizations due to a ban on financial transactions that were part of a tightened sanctions imposed by the EU and the United States in February 2012, which included expelling Iranian financial institutions from SWIFT, a global international banking system.

In July 2012, IFF head Ali Kafashian complained about being unable to receive over $1 million from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), claiming that “there is no basis whatsoever for the American Government to block our money.” Said Kafashian: “We are a NGO and have nothing to do with politics. We have approached the AFC and several other organizations to persuade the Americans to release our money, which we are desperate to have, to no avail.”

Despite the reigning climate of austerity, the Iranians did approve one significant expense: the hiring of well-known Portuguese manager Carlos Queiroz in 2011. An experienced coach with stints in charge of Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid and as an assistant manager of Manchester United, Quieroz took charge of his own national team, Portugal, for the 2010 World Cup. Since arriving in Iran, however, he has been repeatedly frustrated by the lack of resources at his disposal, saying in May: “Those who think Iran’s national team will be successful with only 14 days of preparation, are either crazy or are living in Disneyland.”

For financial reasons, he was forced to cancel a planned training camp in Portugal in August 2013, that was to include a vital test against Ghana, one of Africa’s best teams. The IFF claimed it could not afford the trip. Perhaps spurred by the (minimum) $8 million that FIFA hands out in prize money to each of the 32 World Cup teams, there was a spurt of activity this May with a training camp in Austria and friendly games arranged in quick succession against low-ranked teams Belarus, Montenegro, Angola, and Trinidad and Tobago. Though money appears still tight: Iran’s stars reportedly will not be able to swap shirts at the end of each World Cup game — as they will be given only a limited number of kits.

If it sounds like football is a little too close to politics in Iran, that’s because it is.

If it sounds like football is a little too close to politics in Iran, that’s because it is. Popular passion for the game is such that no leader can afford to ignore it. One of the first international figures that President Hassan Rouhani met after taking office last August was Sepp Blatter, the controversial chief of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), football’s international governing body, who backed Iran’s bid to host the 2019 Asian Cup. If Rouhani hadn’t immediately grasped the power of the game, it was made abundantly clear soon enough. Just one week after his historic election inspired thousands to take to the streets, crowds of roughly equal size turned out to celebrate Iran’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup. By scoring political points in his meeting with Blatter, however, the new Iranian president was just following the example set by his predecessor. According to a diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “has staked a great deal of political capital in Iranian soccer … in an effort to capitalize on soccer’s popularity with constituents.”

Ahmadinejad’s glamour shots of himself playing soccer may not rival those of Vladimir Putin hunting and fishing on the manly-man scale, but they do portray a leader who knew how to play the game. The former president visited national team practices on a regular basis, handing out advice to the stars. In 2009, he lent his personal jet to the team so that it could return home from North Korea as quickly as possible and prepare for another vital game. Ahmadinejad even reportedly got involved with the hiring and firing of coaches and the selection of certain players. Political meddling is all well and good when the team wins, but patience starts to wear thin when the losses are piling up. Indeed, after Saudi Arabia scored the decisive goal in a fiery March 2009 match in Tehran shortly after Ahmadinejad entered the stadium, the Iranian leader became known as a jinx.

That was nothing compared to what happened in June of that year. With millions of angry demonstrators on the streets protesting what they saw as Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent re-election victory over popular challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the national team flew to South Korea for a vital qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup.Iran victory June 2013[/column]  [column size=”1/2″]

As the starting 11 took the field in front of 66,000 fans at Seoul World Cup Stadium, six members of the Iranian team, including Karimi, were sporting green wristbands — the color of Mousavi’s movement and of the Green Revolution that was then underway. Despite the official explanation that the wristbands had a religious and not political meaning, the gesture was seen by millions back home as support for the opposition. The players emerged for the second half free of wristbands.

In the end, Iran just missed out on qualification; there was no triumphant homecoming, though that may have presented its own set of difficulties for the regime. In November 1997, after the team won a ticket to the 1998 World Cup with a dramatic playoff victory in Australia, it was instructed to delay its return by three days because the regime was concerned about the number of people, especially women, celebrating on the streets of Tehran. When the heroes eventually landed in the massive Azadi Stadium via helicopter (a motorcade was too risky), women forced their way in to pay homage to their heroes — a team that would eventually defeat the United States 2-1 the following summer in a game that remains Iran’s only World Cup win.

Despite their daring appearance at the 1998 celebration, women remain persona non grata at Iranian soccer stadiums, the official reason being that their presence may provoke the males to misbehave. (A fine movie called Offside tells the story of a soccer-crazed Iranian girl who disguises herself as a man in order to gain entrance.) Ahmadinejad did lift the ban in 2006 to allow women a special section, but this move was swiftly reversed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Iranian politicians have done more than just try to score points with the public by associating themselves with the game. After a poor showing at the 2006 World Cup, Mohammad Aliabadi, head of the governmental body that runs all athletics in Iran, fired the head of the IFF — a clear violation of FIFA rules, which prohibit governmental interference in the running of the game. The fact that Aliabadi, who also happened to be one of Ahmadinejad’s vice presidents, subsequently announced his intention to run for the IFF post made it all the more blatant. FIFA responded by banning Iran from all international soccer activity in November 2006, forcing Aliabadi to withdraw in 2007. The ban was then lifted. 

In 2008, the mild-mannered Kafashian was elected unopposed, and while most expected him to follow the Ahmadinejad line, he eventually showed a surprising amount of independence When he came up for re-election in 2012, Ahmadinejad tried again to install a surrogate atop the IFF. Four years of infighting and underachievement on the field gave the president an excuse to insert his own man into the post, but he wasn’t the only one playing politics behind the scenes. 

The Revolutionary Guard, loyal to the supreme leader, has played a growing role in Iranian soccer — inserting former commanders into influential posts in the country’s club teams, and in 2012 fielding a member of their old guard, Aziz Mohammadi (also the head of Iran’s soccer league), as an IFF candidate. But Kafashian surprised all with his political skills in maneuvering between the two parties — no doubt aided by threat of another round of FIFA sanctions if the government was seen as interfering once again in the federation’s elections. The Revolutionary Guard, confident that Kafashian had become independent of Ahmadinejad (who was by then seen as a wild card), withdrew its man and supported the incumbent. Faced with the risk of defeat, the president followed suit and Kafashian was returned unopposed.

Even so, playing politics had diverted Kafashian’s time and attention away from the actual business of soccer. With U.S. and European sanctions reducing governmental revenue, this had a direct impact on the local league, which is relatively strong in Asian terms but lagging behind the continent’s leading lights: South Korea and Japan.

The vast majority of Iranian clubs are owned — directly or indirectly — by the state. After decades of government support, few had incentives to find independent revenue sources or professionalize and modernize operations off the field. In 2011, an AFC investigation team found that only three of 18 teams in the top tier of the league could be classified as professional. That said, salaries are not low, with top players able to earn as much as $700,000 a year — thanks to government subsidies. Tehran’s finance ministry said early in 2014 that it was becoming harder to bankroll the two biggest clubs in the country, Esteghlal and Persepolis. Both clubs have serious debts but also millions of fans — and few believe that talk of privatization will amount to anything. The clubs are simply too important, especially when politics is involved.

Given its troubles in arranging games, Iranian soccer would surely benefit from greater engagement with its immediate neighbors. While it plays against other Asian teams, Iran refuses to participate in West Asia’s biennial tournament, the Gulf Cup of Nations, because of the competition’s name. (Tehran refuses to refer to the body of water that separates it the Arabian Peninsula as anything other than the Persian Gulf, and its domestic soccer league is called the Persian Gulf League.) In May, the United Arab Emirates changed the name of its league to the Arabian Gulf League — a move which angered many in Iran, including Houshang Nasirzadeh, head of the Legal Committee and Regulations of the IFF, who said that the federation “will send a letter to the FIFA ethics committee. It regards the UAE’s behavior as politically-tainted and racist.”

Relations between Iran and the UAE were already poor thanks to a territorial dispute. Both lay claim to three islands in the strategic Straits of Hormuz, currently administered by Iran. A visit to two of them by Ahmadinejad in April 2012 caused a planned soccer game with the UAE to be cancelled. 

At least for the moment, the attention is on the game itself — as Iran’s opening World Cup fixture with Nigeria draws closer. Much depends on the tactical acumen of coach Queiroz and a well-organized, defensive-minded team. Indeed, they may even benefit from being underestimated. A final warm-up game, against Trinidad and Tobago, at Iran’s Sao Paulo base, ended in a confidence boosting 2-0 win, Iran’s first victory in a World Cup warm-up.

It may be a case of too little, too late but despite the politics and the problems, the whole country is excited and looking forward to the events of the next few weeks. Iran would go crazy if the national team could manage a draw against the mighty Argentina or, inshallah, somehow makes it to the second round. Of course, the ayatollahs might be less pleased if the team does too well, sparking mass celebrations in Tehran. Soccer in Iran is never simple. [/column][/row]