Iran stars step into limelight despite shrinking socks
The Islamic Republic still stand a chance of making the second round of the World Cup for the first time in history
A hundred thousand fans for your home internationals, a nation’s admiration for excellent World Cup performances, contrasted with struggling to find opponents and socks that shrink in the wash, life as a soccer player for Iran has its unique highs and lows.
Iran’s soccer stars are revered at home and have a penchat for fast cars and expensive toys which mirrors those of similar status in other countries.
Many were little known outside their country before the World Cup although their reputations have been enchanced by a goalless draw with African champions Nigeria and a narrow 1-0 defeat to one of the tournament favourites Argentina.
On Wednesday, Iran still stand a chance of making the second round for the first time in history as they face already eliminated Bosnia.
But life in the Iranian camp is not always straightforward.
Iran’s political and economical sanctions made it very tricky to find befitting opponents for World Cup warm ups, lining-up against the likes of Angola and Trinidad and Tobago in preparation for Brazil.
A lack of kit and socks that shrank in the wash have also been bemoaned by players and staff while pitches at home are often poor.
“In my country we have excellent soccer players, bearing in mind what little facilities we have,” Iran goalkeeper Rahman Ahmadi told Reuters.
Of Iran’s 23-man squad, 14 play their domestic soccer in an Iranian league their coach Carlos Queiroz describes as amateur, with just six based in Europe. It all adds up to make their rise to Asia’s top side, not to mention almost claiming a draw with twice champions Argentina in Brazil, all the more impressive.
“There are many differences to those players who play in Europe, they have facilities from very early on when they start playing soccer. They have facilities that we don’t have in our countries, there are huge differences and naturally they make greater progress then we do,” Ahmadi said.
Domestic matches can attract a hundred thousand spectators and TV audience figures of upwards of 25 million underline the appetite for Iran’s No.1 sport, with unprecedented pictures on Twitter of the likes of president Hassan Rouhani watching the national team games in Brazil on television.
“It is a country where football is in the DNA of people. It’s total madness and a passion for all Iranians,” says Queiroz, who has led calls to improve domestic facilities.
Midfielder Andranik Teymourian, who had a two-year spell with England’s Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League from 2006, is the highest-paid player in the Iranian league, earning over $700,000 a year according to media reports, while most national players at home collect anything from $400,000 upwards.
The squad has its characters. Key striker Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plays for England’s Charlton Athletic, is a talented violinist, while young midfielder Bakhtiyar Rahmani is also a singer and has released a music video in Kurdish.
Some of the players raised overseas have struggled to be fully accepted in the Islamic state.
Midfielder Ashkan Dejagah, one of Iran’s best players, was born in Iran but moved to Germany at an early age. His inclusion has split opinion, winning plaudits from fans for his performances but labelled vulgar by sections of the Iranian media for his tattoos, which are illegal in Iran.
It can also be tough for supporters.
Iranian police recently arrested two people who appeared in an online video of young people singing and dancing in support of the country’s World Cup efforts team, with chiefs urging youngsters not to take part in such activities.
Cinemas have been banned from showing matches to a mixed audience of men and women, restaurants stopped from decorating their establishments with flags, and plans to show games on big outdoor screens in Tehran scrapped to avoid large crowds.
However, if they make the knockout rounds in Brazil, scenes of Iranians flooding the streets similar to when they qualified for the 2014 showpiece will be hard to stop. Such is the pride of their performances so far, it may happen regardless.
“When I arrived in Brazil I saw some comments in the newspaper,” Queiroz said. “When they are talking about our group they didn’t even mention the name of Iran, they only mentioned Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia. Our goal was to put Iran on the World Cup map in Brazil, we did that.”