Iran drifting away in a political tide

Posted by John Duerden

Carlos Queiroz: Talking up Iran's chancesGettyImagesCarlos Queiroz has steadied things for Iran and is hopeful of making an impact at next year's World Cup.

New Iranian president Hassan Rouhani is still waiting for official congratulations from Barack Obama on his recent election win. It could be a long wait, but maybe football will lend a helping hand. Less than four months from now, the two countries could be drawn in the same World Cup group. Anyone who doubts the ability of the beautiful game to bring people together should think back to the 1998 tournament. Iran defeated the United States 2-1 in a frantic and fantastic game.

In the days before that meeting in Lyon, France, Bill Clinton recorded a prematch message of peace and understanding. In the minutes before the kickoff, the Iranian players presented their surprised opponents with bunches of flowers bigger than the Champions League trophy. The two teams then posed for a group picture which remains one of the iconic World Cup images.

So does the Marco Tardelli-rivaling celebration of Hamid Estili after he scored the first goal to send Iranians around the world crazy. It set Team Melli on the road to their first World Cup win, though whether that feat was heightened or diminished by the political focus of the game is hard to say. At the very least, for 90 minutes, Iran and America competed on the world stage in a healthy spirit of respect. Those who were there say it wasn't quite as smooth as it looked on television, but regardless, it was a great example of football getting in the way of politics, and not the other way around.

Fifteen years later, and the relationship is worse. U.S.-led sanctions are crippling Tehran's economy with no respite in sight for the new man in charge. Iran is struggling to sell its oil, the currency is crumbling, foreign reserves are falling and inflation is going in the opposite direction.

For the tens of millions of fans in Iran, the prospect of a World Cup should be a welcome escape from such problems, but preparations for the tournament, and dreams of progressing past the group stage at the fourth time of asking, have been affected by Iran's increasing international isolation. Team Melli qualified for the tournament thanks to a winning goal in South Korea from new star Reza Ghoochannejhad, a player who left the country as a boy to head to the Netherlands; sorting out the necessary paperwork so he could play for his homeland took more than two years.

It is not easy to compete when even basics like the international transfer of money can't be taken for granted. In 2012, the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) had problems receiving a payment of $1 million from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). "We are considering all the options to receive this money as soon as possible," said IFF president Ali Kafashian. "After putting financial sanctions on Iran, money transfers became harder and AFC couldn't move the money into our account. ... Iran's enemies are trying hard to put pressure on Iran's football."

Iran and USA exchange flowers 1998 World Cup
GettyImagesIran's 1998 World Cup clash with USA was expected to be politically charged, but was ultimately a peaceful affair.

Big money, rumoured to be $2 million a year, was available to hire Carlos Queiroz to steer the team to Brazil. The former Real Madrid and Portugal boss wanted to take Team Melli to his homeland for a training camp only to be later told that the funds were not available. "We are going to advance to the next round in the 2014 World Cup, but it will not happen without adequate resources," Queiroz said.

To make matters worse, the Portugal trip would have included a very useful game arranged with Ghana, the kind of test that any Asian team would relish. Rumours, started in Africa, suggested that the game was canceled due to the fear of a potential Black Stars thrashing. "I don't know where the speculations come from. We have to learn from friendlies and for example we cannot play the teams such as Brazil," said Queiroz.

Anyone familiar with the problems that Iran has had arranging tests against decent opposition would have dismissed the rumours immediately. Few teams in the world struggle as much as Iran to arrange meaningful tests and surely none have to deal with as many cancellations. In the months before the 2006 World Cup (when some western politicians called for the team to be booted out of the competition altogether) Romania, Ukraine, Nigeria and Ghana all decided against a trip to Iran after initially agreeing to do so. Games against Macedonia's B-team were not exactly ideal preparations for Germany.

It wouldn't be as bad if Iran played in the Gulf Cup of Nations, a biennial regional tournament that is prized in the region, involving the likes of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates. The next edition is in January and would be useful tournament-style experience to kick-start the final stage of preparations for Brazil. But Iran refuses to participate in the competition due to its name. Tehran calls the gulf the Persian Gulf, and does not countenance any contradictions.

The recent renaming of the UAE Pro League to the Arabian Gulf League did not go down well in Iran, either. There is a large Iranian community in Dubai and the country has long been a popular destination for players looking to move overseas but not too far overseas. Not anymore. A proposed transfer of national team captain Javad Nekounam from Tehran giant Esteghlal to his former club Sharjah was blocked by the Iranian government due to the name change.

"We had to stop him from joining the Emirati league," FA chief Kafashian said, adding that the midfielder and a number of other players would be compensated. The player himself denied that his transfer had to be blocked, saying he had no intention of signing anyway. "The Persian Gulf will always be the Persian Gulf," Nekounam said. "I would never join a team from a league offending the name of the Persian Gulf."

Football relations with the UAE have also been affected by territorial disputes. Iran occupies three islands near the entrance to the Straits of Hormuz -- through which approximately 20 percent of the world's oil passes -- that are also claimed by Abu Dhabi. A visit to one of those islands by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2012 resulted in the UAE FA cancelling a planned game between the two nations, claiming that friendlies should be played between friends. And with just 55 nations represented at Rouhani's inauguration, Iran doesn't have too many of them at the moment.

It is sad for fans in Iran and also for the world -- the country's good-natured, colourful and passionate followers lit up Nurnberg, Frankfurt and Leipzig at the 2006 World Cup. At least they will get another chance to tread the world boards next year when perhaps the beautiful game can once again show its ability to bring people together, even if only for a little while. And it may just be a little while, because politics and Iran's international isolation are conspiring to make Iran's stay in Brazil a short one.

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