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Society & Culture

Iran Defeats South Korea on Religious Mourning Day

October 12, 2016
5 min read
A "eulogist" performs a religious dirge for Imam Hossein at the game
A "eulogist" performs a religious dirge for Imam Hossein at the game
A black banner for Muharram
A black banner for Muharram
Some members of Iran's team
Some members of Iran's team

On Tuesday, October 11, Azadi Stadium in Tehran was covered in black, and black flags fluttered everywhere to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of Muhammad. But despite the somber occasion, Iran’s National Football Team defeated South Korea when, in the 24th minute, the striker Sardar Azmoun scored the only goal of the game.

This is not the first time that an Iranian football team has competed during the holy month of Muharram. In 1994, the National Football Team competed in the same stadium against Taiwan, Syria and Oman to qualify for the 94th FIFA World Cup in the US. No political group objected then. In 1999, it happened again: during mourning days of Muharram, Iran’s Esteghlal Football Team first defeated China’s Dalian Yifang in the semi-finals of the Asian Games, but lost in the finals to Japan’ Júbilo Iwata. Again, nobody objected to the timing.

But this year FIFA’s calendar, which had been set four years ago, suddenly prompted Ayatollah Hashem Bathaie Golpayegani, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, to raise his voice in protest on September 20. He released a message deploring the timing of the match and demanding that it be changed. He said that the timing would “desecrate” the holy days of Tasu'a and Ashura, and that the schedule was part of an American conspiracy and an agenda laid out by a “Zionist-Arabian-British lobby” at FIFA, which he said was designed to win the faithful away from religious observance on those days.

Then, other hardline clergy got in on the game. Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former chief of Iran’s judiciary and the current head of the influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, asked the sports minister to cancel the game. He reminded him that he owed his position to the Islamic Republic and its holy days.

According to FIFA’s rules, if Iran’s National Team failed to participate in the match against South Korea, it would have been considered a 3-0 loss. Iran would have also lost the right to host FIFA football matches for six months to two years. Sports Minister Mahmoud Goodarzi ordered Mehdi Taj, President of the Iranian Football Federation, to talk to FIFA and reschedule the game. FIFA agreed that the match could take place one day before Tasu'a, but only if South Korea agreed. But South Korea did not agree. They said that they had finalized their travel arrangements two months earlier and that, in any case, the schedule had been set by FIFA four years ahead of time.

The football field turned into an arena for political quarrels. On Monday, October 3, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Motahari sent a letter to Ayatollah Yazdi accusing him of turning people away from Islam. “You remind one of the actions of the medieval Catholic Church, which made Europeans turn their backs on religion,” he wrote.

One religious “eulogist” – a singer of popular religious dirges — lost no time in firing back. Mansour Arzi indirectly threatened Motahari and said anybody who calls the “Hezbollahi” nation of Iran to rebellion would be annihilated. He added, “In this time of mourning, they want to get our young people into stadiums.”

“Azadi Stadium is Frightening”

Ignoring the threats, nearly 100,000 spectators made their way into Azadi Stadium for the game. Ticket sales had been stopped two days ahead of time, and there were no tickets available for the second tier, but almost all the seats were occupied.

One day before the match, Davoud Azarnoush, a commander of the paramilitary Basij organization, said that if the game was to take place, television must not show it. He suggested that fans should learn about the match from the news, not by watching it.

South Korean footballers did not have a pleasant experience. “Azadi Stadium is frightening,” said Lee Chung-Yong of the South Korean national team. “It smells of cigarettes and people throw bottles and stones at us.” Koo Ja-Cheol, the South Korean midfielder told the German tabloid Bild that homes in Tehran looked like prisons and the Iranian people were unkind. No foreign footballer or coach has ever made such comments before.

For Carlos Queiroz, the head coach of Iran’s National Football Team, the most painful thing was that he had to shut his mouth. He has always motivated his footballers and their fans with exciting remarks and gestures, but this time, he was wearing black had to limit himself to technical utterances.

In desperation, the Iranian Football Federation tried to use any means to counter the opposition. They brought in Shia eulogists, had mourning processions on the racecourse surrounding the field, and hoisted black flags everywhere that they could. Before the game and in half time, the eulogist sang mourning songs for the spectators.

Strange Victory

Despite the difficulties surrounding the game, the Iranian team gave one its best performances. They played an offensive game, with purpose and with discipline. A 1-0 victory was the least that this team deserved when its fans were not invited to the stadium. Sports journals were prohibited from using rousing headlines by orders from the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. As the editor-in-chief of one sports journal told IranWire, they were ordered to print “religious” headlines instead.

Now with 10 points, Iran is in the top FIFA rankings for Asia. Uzbekistan is second with 9 points. South Korea, after losing to Iran, is third with 7 points. Next come Syria with 4 points, Qatar with 3 and China with 1. The FIFA World Cup in Russia is not far away, and Tuesday was an auspicious and dreamlike day for Iran — if also a rather weird one for the Koreans.


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