Football,  Iran,  Israel/Palestine

Next Year in South Africa. Not.

This is a guest post by Ben Cohen of Z Word

Last Saturday morning, I switched on Fox Soccer Channel for the first of a series of World Cup qualifiers which the station, a veritable lifeline for football lovers in America, was broadcasting. A live feed from Tehran appeared on my screen. On the pitch, Iran was battling Saudi Arabia.

My two small boys dashed in and asked me – as they invariably do – “Who ya cheering for, Daddy?” I had to think about this one. They are too young for a lecture on Middle Eastern politics and I knew that if I said “neither,” I’d get pressed as to why. When you’re seven years old, you have to cheer for someone.

I thought for a few more seconds. I noted the electrified crowd. I studied the Iranian players, many of them groomed and pouting in the style of Manchester United’s Ronaldo. It struck me that what seems banal and irritating in the context of the European game is positively subversive in this context. “Iran,” I mumbled. Blank looks. “The white team,” I clarified. On hearing that, my contrarian sons decided to go for the green team – the Saudis. Islam’s civil war was now in our living room.

I’ve seen the Iranians play impressive football in the past, but on this occasion, the action off the field was more compelling. This being Iranian TV, every time the ball went out of play, even for a second, the cameras would sweep to the Presidential box, where Ahmadinejad and his unsmiling cronies sat looking thuggish and self-important. Whether or not you were actually in the stadium, there was no forgetting Mahmoud’s presence in the house.

As Saudi Arabia snatched a 2-1 victory, I remembered the story of how Saddam Hussein’s son Udai ordered the feet of the Iraqi national team to be whipped after they lost a vital match. Defeated in this crucial qualifier, Iran, which has played in the last three World Cup tournaments, has virtually no hope of going to the next one, next year in South Africa. For Ahmadinejad, revealing the nationalist lurking inside of the Islamist, this was little short of a disgrace.

I haven’t heard, yet, of any Iranian players being dragged into the chamber of horrors that is Evin prison. Instead, Ahmadinejad focused his wrath on the Iranian coach, Ali Daei. No matter that Daei, as a player, enjoyed the same status in Iran as did Bobby Charlton in England or Roberto Baggio in Italy. Reported The Guardian:

Daei was fired as team coach after Iran lost 2-1 to Saudi Arabia in a vital World Cup qualifier at Tehran’s Azadi stadium on Saturday. The match was witnessed by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, who is said to have been instrumental in ousting him.

Ahmadinejad had hoped a victory would bring him political capital before the presidential poll in June. The desire to score a propaganda coup even prompted the president’s fans to credit him when Iran took a 1-0 lead. But the euphoria evaporated in the last 12 minutes and Daei’s fate was sealed as a mass mobile phone text to Ahmadinejad’s supporters went out, reading: “Due to the importance of national public opinion to Dr Ahmadinejad, Ali Daei has been forced out.”

Ironically, as Daei was falling upon the mullah’s sword, Israel’s World Cup bid was also being decided. Playing Greece in Ramat Gan on Saturday night, the Israelis managed a disappointing 1-1 tie. They played another match against Greece the following Wednesday, one they absolutely had to win; they lost 2-1 after conceding a penalty to the Greeks late in the second half.

The worlds tyrannies will have their representatives at the 2010 World Cup. Football being the most global of sports, it necessarily encompasses those countries which hold their leaders accountable and those countries which have their leaders imposed on them. Judging by current form, both North Korea and Saudi Arabia have good reason to believe that they will be flying to South Africa.

But we will be denied the spectacle of Iran and Israel playing – and perhaps being drawn against each other – in the most glorious contest which world sport has to offer. In some ways, that will come as a disappointment to those campaigning for the exclusion of Israel from global competitions, especially as South Africa has become fertile soil for such braying mob politics. You could say that, in the end, it was not the politicians who decided their joint fate, but the players themselves. As Ali Daei might tell you, there is an inherent fairness in football which is absent from politics.

Except that football is not so pure. Missing in the coverage of Israel’s dashed World Cup hopes – the Israeli press was utterly scornful of the national team and its coach, Dror Kashtan, with Yossi Sarid practically frothing at the mouth – was a reminder of why Israel was playing Greece in the first place. Being located in Asia, Israel should be playing in the Asian qualifying group. However, most of the states in that group refuse to play against a country they don’t recognize.

Were Israel allowed to play in its own region, its chances of qualification would be virtually assured. Europe, where it is forced to play, is a much tougher prospect. Those disappointed that they won’t now be greeting the Israeli team with banners denouncing “Zionist apartheid” will probably take some comfort from the fact that while Iran was denied by the ball alone, when it comes to Israel, the boycott was the opposing team’s twelfth man.