Team Melli: Football in Iran

By Connor J. Wangler
Source: FFIRI
Source: FFIRI

Football (or soccer here in the States) has had a long history in Iranian society. According to FIFA, the International Federation of Association Football, the Iranian national football federation was formed in 1920. It is arguably the most popular sport in Iran, only being rivaled by wrestling and volleyball. The common name for the national team is Team Melli, which means “The National Team” or “The People’s Team”. It is currently ranked 47th in the world by FIFA and 2nd in the Asian Football Confederation. On June 18, 2013, Iran defeated South Korea and officially qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup to be hosted in Brazil. According to the Tehran Times, another source of excitement for the upcoming world cup games is the decision of Steven Beitashour to play for the Iranian National Team instead of the United States. Beitashour, who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, is the son of Iranian parents and, therefore, qualifies to play for the national team.

Even the Islamic Republic’s sports realm is tied to the country’s political tensions. In 2009, the country was rocked by mass protests in response to the contentious presidential elections. Each side, pro-President Ahmadinejad and pro-opposition candidates, turned out in the millions to voice their views on the results of the election. Many claimed the election a fraud after it was announced that then-President Ahmadinejad had won sixty percent of the vote despite many voting irregularities. Several members of the national football team joined in the protest by wearing green armbands during a 2010 World Cup qualifying match against South Korea. The green armbands were symbolic of the “Green Revolution” as the protests would be referred to as. According to The Telegraph, many of these members were permanently banned from Iranian football; this was later disputed by the Iranian government after an official FIFA investigation was launched into the matter.

Source: Reuters
Source: Reuters

Football in Iran has also been a place of celebration for women’s rights, as well as a source of problems for women’s rights. The Iranian Women’s National Team was founded in 2005 after years of calls for allowing women to participate in this widely popular sport. Many women in the Islamic country see football as a way to show their skill and be themselves, which many see as difficult in a country where much of what women do is dictated by Islamic law. This has not been, however, free from issues; official FIFA safety regulations have made wearing the hijab, a required head scarf for women in Iran, quite problematic as it is cited as a possible choking hazard. According to CBS News, the requirement of the hijab by Iranian law has cost the women’s national team several crucial games which had to be forfeited for not complying with FIFA rules. Luckily, however, FIFA is working with designers to create headscarves that fit with its safety regulations and will allow Islamic women to wear the hijab while playing.

A 2011 documentary film called “Veil of Dreams” follows three girls whose dream is to play for the Iranian National Team and discusses the issues presented by the hijab requirement. Here is a short clip from the film:

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