The loud belly laughs emanating from the Sao Paulo training base of the Iran national team are not what you might readily expect from the supposedly most secretive and mysterious nation at the World Cup.
Ali Kafashian, president of the Iranian Football Federation, has just been asked by an American journalist about reports that the Iran players have been instructed not to exchange shirts on Saturday with the Argentina team. “If Mr Lionel Messi wants all 10 Iran shirts, he can have them,” he says, smiling.
It is later claimed that the original story had rather spiralled out of control after Kafashian himself had made a joke about the limitations of the Iran Football Federation’s budget. Those restrictions make it almost certain that the £1.2 million-a-year contract of manager Carlos Queiroz will not be extended after the World Cup, although the players have been promised a shared £600,000 bonus from Fifa prize money should Iran achieve the unprecedented feat of reaching the last 16
That this is regarded as even a remote possibility is a testament to the progress of Iranian football under Queiroz and a set of results since 2011 that has been achieved amid the backdrop of stifling international sanctions over the government’s uranium-enrichment programme. Iran are now the top-ranked team in Asia, have one of the largest fan contingents in Brazil and, while the rest of the world was hardly captivated by their goalless draw against Nigeria on Monday, it was the trigger for spontaneous street celebration in Tehran.
The Iran president, Hassan Rouhani, even posted a photograph of himself on Twitter relaxing at home in an Iranian team shirt – bare arms on show – and tracksuit bottoms as he watched the game. It is believed to be the first off-duty picture of an Iranian president and was considered particularly remarkable because Rouhani is a cleric.
“Proud of our boys who secured our first point – hopefully the first of many more to come,” wrote Rouhani. Pictures of Iran’s foreign minister – as well as other Iranian diplomats – watching the match in Vienna during a break in nuclear negotiations with western diplomats were also published.
A PR strategy is clearly also at work and the open-door policy and accessibility in Brazil of Kafashian and Nasrollah Sajadi, Iran’s deputy minister for sport, is not what you might anticipate. They even have an American, Dan Gaspar, as their goalkeeping coach.
Inside the Iran camp at the Corinthians training ground, the atmosphere feels remarkably relaxed. Interest, both from a 35-strong Iranian press contingent and media outlets from across the globe, is considerable. Football has become the national sport of Iran, more popular than the more traditional pursuits of wrestling and weight-lifting, particularly among Iranian women.
Rouhani has recently ordered an official investigation into whether women should still be prohibited from attending football matches, although plans to screen World Cup games in communal cinemas, cafes and restaurants were eventually scrapped amid concern both at large crowds and the prospect of men and women mixing in public.
There are more than 10,000 Iran supporters following their team in Brazil – many of whom are based in the US or Europe – and Tehran is expected to come to a quiet standstill when they play Argentina on Saturday.
This is hardly surprising when you consider that club matches in Iran can attract stadium crowds in excess of 100,000 and the street celebrations in Tehran following last year’s 1-0 win against South Korea that secured World Cup qualification.
The goalless draw against Nigeria was the first time in four World Cup campaigns that Iran’s opening match has not ended in defeat.
Saturday’s fixture against Argentina is regarded as the biggest in Iran’s football history. “We don’t have lots of great individual players but we have unity,” says Kafashian. “We will fight together, we will battle together. We know the world will be watching. That gives us motivation. A good game is important not whether we win or lose.”
There has also been plenty of self-deprecation in the build-up. One joke circulating on social networking sites is that Iran – or ‘Team Melli’ as they are known – will be adopting an 11-0-5 formation in Belo Horizonte tomorrow. “All 11 players defend and the five holy saints play forward,” it says.
There is a certain truth to the joke. Under Queiroz, Iran’s limitations have been mitigated by a formidable defensive organisation. Of his 23-man squad, 14 play their football in Iran and only six are based in Europe, including Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah and Charlton’s Reza Ghoochannejhad. Since beating South Korea, Iran have won six, drawn four and lost only one match. Just one goal has been conceded in their last five matches, against Nigeria, Trinidad and Tobago, Angola, Montenegro and Belarus. They are now in the world’s top 50.
“Previously wrestling was the No 1 sport in Iran, now it is football,” says Kamran Ahmadpour, a sports writer for 90 newspaper.
With two thirds of Iran’s population under the age of 25, sport is becoming increasingly significant and the World Cup is clearly regarded as crucial for their global image. “I think it is very, very important – more important than you can imagine,” says Ahmadpour. He is adamant that the Iranian media are free to criticise the team although he does describe the private lives of the players being regarded as a “red line”.
The practical impact of the sanctions for Iranian fans and media in Brazil is that it is almost impossible to transfer or withdraw money. “It is hard,” says Ahmadpour, who argues that the sanctions are deeply flawed because they do not impact on the government but ordinary Iranian people. He also says that the sanctions have prevented medicines from entering the country and resulted in needless deaths.
“I confess we have problems – economic, social, political,” he says. “The European countries’ governments have a lot of problems with the Iran government. I’m not judging about that, but what is the fault of the people?
“We are part of the world, with a big history. They can see us as their friends and not their enemy. We want to live with each politely. A lot of Iranians work in Europe, in the USA. We have developed greatly in sports, in culture, in film. It shows the huge potential of the Iranian society.”
The sanctions have also had a major impact on the football team’s preparations. A planned overseas training camp was cancelled, few major national sides have been prepared to play the government-funded Iran team and sponsorship opportunities are limited. There was even a fiasco over the team’s kit, with striker Karim Ansarifard quoted as complaining that the socks had shrunk in the wash.
Amid this build-up, and what will surely be a damage-limitation exercise against Argentina tomorrow, Queiroz makes one simple request. “Fans need to know what we did over three years to be here,” he says. “You have to judge our players not as players from Liverpool, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Barcelona, or Corinthians but as players that play in an amateur league. You need to understand that when you watch them on the pitch.
“We have problems to arrange matches and that is why I am very happy with what we have done. Our players deserve respect.”
Jeremy Wilson (The Telegraph)