Iran’s World Cup ended on a disappointing note with a 3-1 defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina closely followed by the departure of popular coach Carlos Queiroz, but could the tournament prove to be a turning point for the country’s footballing landscape?
Iranian football has made tremendous strides since the appointment of Queiroz in 2011. They are now the top ranked team in Asia; their success built on the defensive solidity Queiroz has implemented having only conceded 2 goals in their last 8 qualifying matches.
That defensive structure was successful in the first two matches of the tournament, only being breached by a Lionel Messi wonder strike in stoppage time of Iran’s second game against Argentina.
While many neutrals may not have been impressed by Iran’s 0-0 draw with Nigeria in Group F’s opening match the result sparked celebrations on the streets of Tehran, which were significant despite paling in comparison to the scenes after the 1-0 defeat of South Korea in June last year which secured Iran’s place in Brazil, where men women and children danced in the streets, remarkable given that by law women and men are not allowed to mix in public places.
Joy for this football mad nation has come amidst a back drop of chaos for the government funded Iran football federation much of which it claims is down to U.S sanctions and an E.U embargo, a consequence of the country’s uranium enrichment programme, the preparations for the World Cup were shabby at best.
The federation claims that sanctions prevented them from collecting money from international sponsors, an overseas training camp was cancelled, there were accusations from players that the kit shrank in the wash and arranging any top level friendlies is difficult for political reasons, Iran played Belarus, Montenegro, Trinidad and Tobago and Angola in preparation for the World Cup.
There are though signs that the political strife which hampers the development of football in Iran might be easing although significant change would only appear to be likely in the longer term.
Reuters reported in June that there is the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough to bring an end to Iran’s international isolation, July 20 is the date set as a deadline to conclude talks between Iran and Western powers aimed at ending sanctions in exchange for a limit on Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Even if a deal is struck the complexities of removing any sanctions are likely to take years but if completed Iran would become an attractive proposition for foreign investors, particularly in the oil and gas industry which would boost the economy and since the Iranian football federation is government funded the sport may well reap some reward from that.
The single most damaging sanction placed on Iran was imposed in November 2011 when the U.S used the USA Patriot Act to identify Iran a country of “primary money laundering concern”.
This basically froze Iran out of the international banking system making banks choose between dealing with Iranian institutions or U.S ones; this makes international sponsorship for the Iranian football federation problematic as they apparently found out prior to the World Cup, but a lifting of this sanction would bring further sponsorship opportunities.
There was a clear PR strategy at this World Cup to use Team Melli, as they are known back home, to improve the country’s global image.
There was an open door policy to journalists in Brazil and the Iran president Hassan Rouhani even posted a picture of himself on twitter watching the match with Nigeria at home with an Iran shirt on. While it is not unusual for many Western leaders to have a significant social media presence this was believed to be the first off duty picture of an Iranian president to be published.
Rouhani has also recently launched an investigation into whether women should continue to be prevented attending football matches, only men are allowed into domestic matches in Iran yet crowds can exceed 100,000.
Football is now Iran’s biggest sport and in a country with a young population of around 76 million the potential if both domestic and international laws are relaxed is huge.