Iran’s national team sees popularity boost, but not just because of World Cup

Al-Monitor | : Thousands of Iranians gathered at Imam Khomeini International Airport on the outskirts of Tehran on June 27 to welcome the national soccer team upon its return from the FIFA World Cup in Russia. Despite being eliminated at the group stage once again, the team has received unparalleled praise from the public over its performance, having defeated Morocco, tied against Portugal and lost by only one goal against Spain. Indeed, the large crowd that showed up at 2 a.m. chanting “Thank You!” was only a sliver of the millions of Iranian soccer devotees with similar sentiments about their national team.

Like many other places around the world, the World Cup is a popular event in Iran. As before, the tournament ignited a sense of excitement and pride among viewers as their home country’s representative was tested on a global stage. But this year was different. Iranians also had other, unique reasons to root for their national team, especially in light of the ongoing economic and political crises in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. One of these reasons is how ordinary Iranians relate to the squad on a personal level. Indeed, shared experiences and emotions, whether consciously or unconsciously, seem to have united otherwise divided Iranians in strongly supporting their national team — and especially together, in public.

International sports, and particularly the World Cup, commonly claim to transcend politics, but when it comes to Iran, soccer is not exempt from politicization — whether by hard-liners at home or abroad.

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