By James M. Dorsey
It didn't take long for it to emerge that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shared an understanding of soccer’s political utility with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who’s militant and conservative policies he hopes to reverse.
Like Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr Rouhani, a cleric, is seeking to identify himself with the success of his country’s national team that is delivering one of its best performance in this month’s World Cup in Brazil. Mr. Rouhani, who is negotiating with the United States and its fellow permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany an end to the Iranian nuclear crisis and with Washington possible coordination of efforts to stymie the jihadist advance in Iraq, could however succeed where Mr. Ahmadinejad failed.
Hopes are riding high on Mr. Rouhani who this week posted a photograph of himself on Twitter relaxing at home in an Iranian team shirt and tracksuit bottoms. The photo, believed to be the first off-duty picture of an Iranian president, was published after Iran narrowly lost a match against favourite Argentina but emerged in the Estado Mineirao in Belo Horizonte as the spectator’s darling, a badly needed image boost for a nation long seen as one of the world’s pariahs.
By contrast, fans hold Mr. Ahmadinejad responsible for tightening the grip of the government and its Revolutionary Guards, who are believed to be fiercely loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on soccer. The presence at matches of Mr. Ahmadinejad, a player and soccer enthusiast, was often seen as a bad omen, depriving the former president of the opportunity he sought to polish his tarnished image by identifying himself with the beautiful game.
Mr. Rouhani on the other hand is likely to benefit from the fact that Iran whom bookmakers gave the longest odds of any of 32 teams in the tournament is outperforming itself and winning hearts and minds in the process.
“We don’t have lots of great individual players but we have unity. 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,” Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation president Ali Kafashian told The Daily Telegraph.
The Iranian team’s performance so far with its 0:0 draw against Nigeria in its first World Cup match in which it was not defeated in its first tournament game as well as the encounter with Argentina, has spared Mr. Rouhani and his government being blamed for another failure. "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,” the team’s captain, Javad Nekounam, said weeks before the World Cup kicked off in Brazil.
The Iranian president nevertheless faces a number of battles before soccer will truly be an effective tool in turning Iran’s battered image around. Breaking resistance by Revolutionary Guards who manage or control the country’s often financially troubled clubs that are owned by state entities is one major battle that Mr. Rouhani’s government is already waging.
Allowing women to attend matches in stadia is another. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Rouhani will succeed where Mr. Ahmadinejad failed. The former president’s politically opportunistic bid to get the ban on women lifted in 2006 was blocked by Ayatollah Khamenei and senior clerics in the holy city of Qom.
World soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter cautioned Iranian officials during a visit earlier this year to the Islamic republic that lifting the ban on women’s attendance was key to acceptance of Iran in the international soccer community. “I believe Iran now is looking into to this possibility,” said Dan Gaspar, the Iranian team’s American assistant manager, in an interview with Goal.com.
Mr. Gaspar’s optimism gained credibility with reports in state-run media that Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi was "investigating" a recent ban on women attending volleyball matches. Dozens of Iranian women protested earlier this month in front of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium because they unlike Brazilian women were banned from attending a match of their national team against Brazil.
Similarly, the security forces barred cinemas from arranging live broadcasts of World Cup matches to mixed gender audiences. Restaurants and coffee shops were advised days later that they would not be allowed to have televisions on while tournament games were being broadcast. That ban has been flaunted by some owners without the government seeking to enforce it.
Iranwire reported that security guards at the Brazil volleyball game told women that the ban had recently been imposed because mail security personnel was not allowed to restrain female fans when they get to excited. The news service quoted a woman as responding: “We have been attacked by male security agents many times. We have experienced their fists and their kicks in the streets. If they don’t want to beat women in the stadium, then they should hire female security guards.”
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title