Supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s ideological influence has affected Iranian athletes in all respects: from mandatory hijab for female athletes and forbidding men and women to shake hands to the prohibition on playing with Israeli athletes and now using the football team for the benefit of the Islamic Republic.
The government’s efforts to create competition between fans of the clubs of Tehran and other cities have reached their peak over the past five years.
During the past two months and after the nationwide protest, this cynicism faded. Esteghlal or Persepolis, provinces or Tehran, Tractor or Sepahan clubs became meaningless.
But on the eve of the World Cup, the team that had been a catalyst in unifying Iranians in past decades was split in two for the people: the “Iranian national team” and the "Islamic Republic team".
Khamenei, who has no interest in the “principle of sports” and sees any athletes or sports teams as an opportunity to export the ideology of the Islamic Republic, has used the football team for the benefit of his policies.
Khamenei brings enmity with Israel into sports
The first time Ali Khamenei talked about sports and immediately attached it to politics was in 1983 when he mentioned the historic football match between Iran and Israel during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's time in a televised interview.
The Iran and Israel teams faced each other on May 19, 1968 at Amjadieh stadium. Iran won 2-1.
“In those days I was a young student in Tehran. The general atmosphere in Tehran was against the Israeli team, and after the match all the people showed their happiness about this victory. In a taxi the driver said, did you see how we scored against them? This showed the nation's dissatisfaction with the shah’s cooperation with Israel,” Khamenei said in that interview as the president of Iran.
Before the International Olympic Committee's criticism on the issue of refusing to compete against Israelis, Iranian media called it “defending the oppressed people of Palestine,” but for almost a decade now the media has been claiming that Iranian athletes were “injured” or “overweight” and unable to play against their Israeli opponents.
Khamenei takes 90 TV football show off air
Khamenei has made Iran’s national football team the football team of the Islamic Republic. In a speech to the country's Basij paramilitary force he said: “The players of the national team delighted us, may God delight.” The players will receive US$15,000 each for beating Wales in the World Cup.
Khamenei has no interest in football, but it has become a matter of national security. After the Iran team failed to sing the national anthem before their first World Cup game against England, top player Voria Ghafouri – not part of the squad – was arrested for “spreading propaganda against the state” and the team sang the widely despised anthem before their second game against Wales.
In September 2018 Mohammad Sarafraz, the former head of state TV and radio, claimed that he refused a request from Khamenei’s office to take the 90 weekly football show off the air.
Ali Foroughi, who succeeded Sarafraz, ordered the production and broadcast of 90 to be stopped in 2018.
Khamenei sees sports as sexual stimulation
“Our young boys do not shake hands with the ladies who put a medal around their necks. We don't do anything just out of religious bias or to promote our beliefs, this is a sign of endurance that exists in the nature of Iranian people,” Khamenei told athletes after they returned from the London Olympics in 2012.
Mahmoud Khosraviwafa, one of the senior security officials of the Islamic Republic, has been head of the National Olympic Committee for the past three decades. He was previously Khamenei’s personal and official bodyguard in the 1980s.
In fact the leader of the Islamic Republic suggests that even an athlete’s loss to a British woman may be provoked. For him, the victory or defeat of athletes and sports teams is not important: it is important to behave in line with the system.