Ali Parvin, who operates a small automobile dealership in downtown Tehran, was one of the greatest players Iran has known. He was the playmaker for the national team in the '70s, and if public sentiment had prevailed, he would still be coaching the team.
He held that job five years ago when Iran attempted to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, which was held in the U.S. His team played badly in regional qualifying and was beaten by two of Iran's other great political enemies, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Parvin, who did not leave his hotel room for 48 hours after the final defeat, was fired by the Iranian Soccer Federation a few days later.
Yet Parvin's reputation could not be deflated so easily. Portraits of Khomeini are everywhere in Tehran—on billboards, painted on the sides of buildings, in framed pictures hung on the walls of every government and commercial office, printed on the money—but it is Parvin of whom the people speak most affectionately. To this day his name is sung in the 100,000-seat stadium of his former club, Perspolis. "Ali-aaaay Parveen!" This even though he has not visited a stadium in two years.
Without Parvin's leadership, the national team was in disarray. The new coach, Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, seems to have been chosen more for his politics than his soccer knowledge, and there were reports of a fist-fight in the dressing room between Kohan and some of his players. Some Iranians even suggested that their government was happy to see the team fail. After the 1979 revolution, the Islamists controlling the government frowned on soccer, considering it an unhealthy intrusion from the West. Some hard-liners argue that the U.S. is using the upcoming World Cup match as a ploy to humanize Americans and break down the political will of the Iranian people.
Despite this turmoil and intrigue, Iran displayed a strong offense during early qualifying matches and only needed to beat a patsy, Qatar, to secure a berth in the upcoming World Cup. Qatar had never scored a goal against Iran, but on Nov. 7, 1997, Qatar won 2-0. In Iran three fans died of heart attacks while watching the match on television. Kohan was fired the next day, and a Brazilian, Valdeir Vieira, was hired to coach a team made up of players who had, like many Brazilians, learned the game on the streets. With the exception of three who play in Germany's Bundesliga—the attackers Khodadad Azizi, Karim Bagheri and Ali Daei—the players compete in Iran's semi-pro league.
Just three weeks after losing to Qatar, Iran scored two miraculous goals in the last 14 minutes of regulation to move past Australia and qualify for the final berth in the 32-team World Cup field. Millions of Iranians burst into the streets to celebrate. Young women were seen brazenly pulling off their black scarves, dancing with men and in some cases drinking alcohol in defiance of Islamic law. This street party went on for hours—and the authorities did not try to stop any of it. To do so would have been unpatriotic. Instead, they fired Vieira. He had become too popular, and therefore too dangerous.
In the first week of May in Tehran, devout Muslims marked the Islamic Shiite holiday of Ashura. Men wore black mourning clothes in recognition of the martyr Husayn, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who was among those massacred at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.; thousands of men and boys marched through the streets to the beating of drums while whipping their own backs in penance with heavy strands of chain. At the same time, in the city's alleys, in its public parks and even on the grounds of the new holy shrine to Khomeini, children and men were playing soccer.
In the gorgeous Laleh Park, a group of young men playing soccer on this somber holy day say they are looking forward to the World Cup because it is an opportunity to begin a nonpolitical relationship with Americans. Their complaints, they emphasize, are with the government of the U.S., not with its people. They know of America only from satellite television and contraband videos, and what they hear from relatives who live there.
On the night of June 21, the streets of Tehran will be empty as people crowd around the most revolutionary of all Western inventions, their televisions, to watch the match against the U.S. Most observers say the Iranian team has little chance of prevailing, partly because it has few world-class players but also because it is still roiling with controversy. In January the Iranian Soccer Federation hired yet another coach, Tomislav Ivic of Croatia, who has coached several top clubs in Europe, but after a 7-1 exhibition loss on May 19, he was fired and replaced by Jalal Talebi, his Iranian assistant. The team has now gone through four coaches in seven months.
Just a few weeks before getting sacked, Ivic was in the lobby of Tehran's Laleh Hotel trying to explain soccer tactics to the president of the Iranian Soccer Federation, a political appointee who knows little about the game. "This is the way to beat the Americans!" Ivic shouted in his zeal to share some of his wisdom and experience. Unimpressed, the president walked out accompanied by his righthand man, Mohammad Khabiri, the brother of Habib. As a vice president of the federation, Mohammad is an official in the fundamentalist government that executed his brother, drawing his political power—as Habib did—from soccer, the simplest game and the world's most complicated sport.