Team Melli bridges the U.S.-Iran divide

(Reuters) – Iran’s goalless opening match at the World Cup finals may not have been much of an advertisement for football but it did demonstrate the power of the game to overcome political divisions.

Among the unused substitutes on the Iranian bench was American-born defender Steven Mehrdad Beitashour, who plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps in Major League Soccer and hails from San Jose, California.

Had things panned out differently, the San Diego State University graduate might have been playing for the U.S. team who made a winning start to their Brazilian adventure shortly after Iran had drawn with Nigeria.

The 27-year-old was called up by the U.S. for a friendly in 2012, but did not play and then opted for the land of his parents.

Beitashour is by no means the only U.S. citizen rooting for Iran at the World Cup, with the team’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz including much-travelled American Dan Gaspar on his technical team.

And there were a fair few fans at the Baixada Arena on Monday afternoon wearing the red, white and green colors of the Islamic Republic and speaking with American accents.

One of them was Hackensack attorney Nima Ameri, who had flown in from New Jersey on a last minute impulse and secured tickets for the game.

“I am someone who has not been to Iran. I was born on the East Coast and work in Manhattan. And here I am,” he told Reuters Television.

“Soccer is a game that doesn’t have politics in it, it doesn’t have governments in it, it just has nationality, your nation and your country,” added the Rutgers University-educated lawyer.

“Wherever you are in the world, whoever you are, if you have ancestry that belongs to a certain area it doesn’t matter what you believe in as long as you believe in the international sport of soccer.”

Ameri said all his friends of Iranian extraction had parties planned for the match back home.

“The Iranian national team has huge support from everyone, irrespective of politics,” he said.

The Iranian diaspora, many of whom left the country after the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah and turned the new republic into an implacable foe of the United States, is also reflected in the team itself.

Five of those who started on Monday play abroad, with Queiroz – who took over from Iranian-born American Afshin Ghotbi – recruiting foreign-born players like Beitashour with Iranian ancestry.

Goalkeeper Daniel Davari, dropped to the bench for the opener, was born and plays in Germany and speaks no Farsi. Forward Ashkan Dejagah played for Germany at youth level while Reza Ghoochannejhad emigrated to the Netherlands as a boy.

“I don’t follow politics too much,” Beitashour told the BBC before he arrived in Brazil. “For me it was always just about soccer.”

(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Nigel Hunt)