Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz agreed Sunday to coach Iran’s national soccer team amid mounting tension in advance of banned opposition demonstrations scheduled for Monday and a ban on professional soccer matches in Tehran aimed at preventing the pitch from becoming a rallying point for protesters. Queiroz signed a preliminary contract with the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI), the Iranian Student’s News Agency (ISNA) quoted FFIRI international committee director Abbas Torabian as saying. Torabian said Queiroz and the Iranian federation would sign a definite contract by the end of this week. He said Portuguese player and coach Antonio Simoes would be part of the staff Queiroz would bring to Tehran with him. Queiroz’s three-year contract is reported to be worth $6 million. Queiroz has coached Real Madrid and Portugal’s Sporting as well as the national teams of the UAE and South Africa. By announcing Queiroz’s appointment on the eve of demonstrations called by the Iranian opposition in support of the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East that have already toppled two presidents, Hosni Mubark of Egypt and Zine Abedine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Ahmedinejad appeared to be attempting to divert attention from the protests. As Queiroz’s appointment was announced, residents of Tehran took to the roofs of their houses to shout anti-government slogans, including Allahu Akbar (God is Great) and Mag Bar Diktatur (Death to Dictator).
Iran’s ban on the opposition demonstrations contrasts starkly with its vocal support for the protests in Arab capitals, which it claims were inspired by its 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah.
US officials Sunday exploited the contradiction in the Iranian position, demanding that it allow protesters to take to the streets. For their part, Iranian opposition leaders say events in Egypt, where soccer fans played a key role in the protests, and Tunisia have given Iran’s opposition Green Movement a new lease on life.
A Facebook page in advance of the demonstration in Tehran has attracted more than 30,000 supporters. The page includes materials to be distributed as well as newscasts about the protests in Egypt that have paralyzed the country for more than two weeks. Similar Facebook pages have been created for demonstrations on February 14 in other Iranian cities.
Iran couched the ban on professional soccer matches in terms of wanting to focus attention on this weekend’s celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
To many, however, the postponement had more to do with concern that the matches would provide an opportunity to express anti-government sentiment.
It “may be a precautionary measure taken by the authorities to prevent pro-democracy crowds from gathering on locations where crowd control might prove to be too difficult," said prominent soccer blogger Afshin Afshar.
The postponement of the Tehran matches follows the suspension of league games in Egypt and in Algeria, which is also wracked by anti-government protests.
Queiroz’s predecessor, Afshin Ghotbi, who left after Iran’s disappointing performance in last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar, called on his departure for a divorce in Iran of soccer and politics.
Ghotbi directed his appeal to the national team’s players, some of whom wore green wrist bands during a 2009 World Cup qualifier in support of the Green Movement as fans shouted anti-government slogans from the tribune.
His call applies however to soccer as an institution in a country where politics permeates the game. Iranian clubs like those in Egypt are government-controlled, more often than not owned through state-run companies. Representatives of Iran’s Ministry of Youth and Sports sit on club boards while the Revolutionary Guards over the past two years have successfully increased their influence on the game.
Government officials fear the power of soccer in creating alternative public spaces where Iranians can vent pent-up anger and frustration with their leaders. That concern has been reinforced by past support for opposition figures by soccer personalities and institutions, including the managing board of Zob Ahan Football Club and a former coach of Persepolis FC, Asia’s most popular club.
Iranian soccer analysts believe that matches in the Tehran derby between Persepolis and FC Taj have ended in draws over the last six years as a result of government match fixing.
The analysts say the fixing is designed to prevent the often violent derby from escalating into anti-government protests.
Iran’s successful World Cup qualifiers in 1997 and 2005 resulted in massive celebrations in the streets of Tehran, marked by public intoxication, dancing, and women removing their hijabs; the elimination of Iran from the 2001 World Cup qualifiers led to rioting.
Tractor Sazi FC, the storied club in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which is owned by Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), has become a flashpoint of the region’s identity politics.
“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.
A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Ahmedinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to polish his tarnished image and curry popular favour.
The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Iranian leader has been hands-on in the management of the Iranian team. The US cable reports that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job and ultimately was succeeded by Ghotbi.
Ahmedinejad has justified his interference telling Iranian journalists that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”