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In the Islamic Republic, World Cup fun is a closed-doors affair

This image posted on the official Twitter account of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday, June 17, 2014 shows the president watching Iran facing off with Nigeria Monday in the World Cup, in his residence in Tehran. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency via Twitter)

TEHRAN: When Iran qualified for the World Cup last year it prompted dancing on the streets of Tehran, with millions of men and women gathering to celebrate a rare sporting achievement.

It was an even rarer sight in the Islamic Republic to see both sexes mixing so freely. Put bluntly, the police had a dilemma:

Act and spoil the party, or let the fun flow wildly for a few hours. They did nothing.

Now that the Iranian team is competing in Brazil, the authorities in Tehran don’t want the same thing to happen again. The message is simple: Stay at home.

Cafes and restaurants in the capital have been told to not show the games, which start in the evening because of the time difference and can end in the small hours.

Saturday’s match against Argentina, one of the tournament favorites, is set to be the highlight for Iran, who are appearing in the finals for the first time since 2006, and the fourth time overall.

There could have been expectations of some sense of occasion regardless of the result, but the prospect of large public gatherings such as the street parties of qualification appear too much to contemplate.

Having been warned by police, trade associations for cinemas, restaurants and other public venues have told their members to fall into line. It is not a popular move.

“I cannot understand why we are not allowed to watch the games in public. In all other countries, people come together and stand united in supporting their team,” said Shiva, a 26-year-old accountant, asking to be identified by her first name only.

“Why are we deprived of this simple right? What is wrong with showing solidarity with our boys? It is very frustrating,” she added.

Hezar Destan, a traditional Persian restaurant near Val-i-Asr, Tehran’s longest street, has a large television on which Iran’s qualifying matches were screened and supporters, many smoking shisha pipes, watched from the relaxed comfort of Persian carpets. But it is one of many such establishments forced to follow the guidance.

A cafe owner in affluent north Tehran who did a roaring trade during previous matches has taken the same step, telling AFP he did not want to risk problems with the authorities.

Their decision to shut up shop early is part of a wider trend that has downplayed the significance of the football extravaganza.

After years under the economic boot of sanctions, the beautiful game has offered a rare moment of sporting unity but it is hard to tell that the World Cup is taking place by looking around Tehran.

Unlike in many countries, no flags hang from car aerials in support of Team Melli (national team, in Farsi).

There are a few billboards with a footballing theme but little else in stark contrast with the vibrant communal atmosphere of bars – alcohol is forbidden in Iran – and nightlife in other World Cup nations.

The Iran side is seen as plucky and determined, but ultimately lacking in talent.

Unfancied from the start, the players were booed off the pitch Monday after a 0-0 draw with the African champions Nigeria.

A picture of President Hassan Rouhani watching that match went viral, but more because he was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a sports shirt, a rare sight for a sheikh, than for anything related to Team Melli.

The picture on his Twitter account showed him sitting on a sofa with tea and pistachios within reach. It seemed to highlight a reality for Iranians: If you are into football, or merely want to join in with your friends, do so in your living room.

With one point already secured and a third match against Bosnia-Hercegovina next week, Iran could yet spring a surprise.

Regardless of the lack of public events in Tehran, some fans think it is the taking part that counts.

“This team has no good players, but the coach created a team spirit, they played with their heart against Nigeria,” said Hossein, a 29-year-old artist who will watch Saturday’s match at home.

“Of course I don’t have much hope against Argentina, maybe we will be crushed,” he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 21, 2014, on page 12.

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Summary

When Iran qualified for the World Cup last year it prompted dancing on the streets of Tehran, with millions of men and women gathering to celebrate a rare sporting achievement.

Now that the Iranian team is competing in Brazil, the authorities in Tehran don't want the same thing to happen again.

Saturday's match against Argentina, one of the tournament favorites, is set to be the highlight for Iran, who are appearing in the finals for the first time since 2006, and the fourth time overall.

After years under the economic boot of sanctions, the beautiful game has offered a rare moment of sporting unity but it is hard to tell that the World Cup is taking place by looking around Tehran.

A picture of President Hassan Rouhani watching that match went viral, but more because he was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a sports shirt, a rare sight for a sheikh, than for anything related to Team Melli.


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