Team Melli and the Iranian Identity

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In Abbas Kiarostami’s Life and Nothing More. . ., a film director and his son travel to Koker, where a 1990 earthquake claimed 40,000 casualties. A young man puts up a makeshift antenna outside of tents, and the director asks him, in surprise, “Given the situation that the earthquake caused so many victims, you watch television?” The young man responds: “The truth is that I, too, am of the mourners. I have lost my little sister and up to three nieces and nephews. But what can we do? The soccer World Cup is once every four years, and the earthquake every forty . . . ”

Hassan Rouhani

President Rouhani watching the World Cup

I recalled this scene while watching Iran play Nigeria — and listening to the roar of the Iranian fans — in the 2014 World Cup. Soccer, or football[1] to the rest of the world, seems to incite nationalist fevers and brings people together in special ways.

Individual Iranian athletes have left their marks in weightlifting, wrestling, and Judo, leading some pundits to suggest Iranians aren’t team players. That judgment has been challenged recently by the men’s national volleyball team that ranks twelfth in the world. In the World League volleyball championship that is happening right now, Iran twice beat Brazil, which is ranked number one.

Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism writes that nationality is a cultural artefact and the nation “is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (6). What is it that holds this limited community together?

Team Melli, Iran’s national football team, has not done as well as the volleyball team, but it is playing in the World Cup, despite the adversity brought by sanctions, and it is presenting a unique picture of the country. The players come from all over Iran, from cities such as Tehran, Ahvaz, Mashad, Shiraz, Esfahan, Ardabil, and Kermanshah and from regions as far north as Bandar-e Anzali by the Caspian Sea and as far south as Bushehr by the Persian Gulf.

Picture of Teymourian and Rahmani

Teymourian and Rahmani

Andranik Teymourian, one of the key players, is an Armenian-Iranian. He became the first Christian captain of the team in a May 18, 2014, match against Belarus. Bakhtiar Rahmani is an Iranian Kurdish player. He was the captain of Iran’s under-23 team. Former captain and coach Ali Daei, the all-time leading goal scorer in international matches, is an Iranian Azeri (Azerbaijan) player. But this diversity may come as a surprise only to those who are not familiar with Iran’s multifarious ethnicities, languages, and even religions.

What’s more surprising about the current Team Melli is that even the geographical boundaries and traditional notions of the nation-state can no longer hold what it means to be Iranian. In the last decade, Iran had a number of footballers, such as Ali Karimi, Ali Daei, and Vahid Hashemian, who played in major European clubs. In fact, Iran boasted “Asia’s highest quota of overseas-based players.” But this is the first time that a coach of Iranian team has aggressively looked for players with Iranian heritage in the European league.

Picture of Dejagah, Ghoochannejhad, Davari, and Beitashour

Dejagah, Ghoochannejhad, Davari, and Beitashour

There are four players in the current team who do not live in Iran. Two players weren’t even born there. Ashkan Dejagah, was born in Iran, but moved to Berlin at age one. He is an Iranian-German who plays for the English club Fulham. Reza Ghoochannejhad was born in Mashhad and emigrated to the Netherlands when he was eight. He is an Iranian-Dutch player on the English Club Charlton Athletic. With an Iranian father and Polish mother, Daniel Davari is an Iranian-German born in Gießen, who played for Eintracht Braunschweig in Bundesliga. After the World Cup, he’ll play for the Swiss Super League team Grasshopper Club Zürich. Steven Beitashour is an Iranian-American born in San Jose, California, who plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps. Beitashour’s parents represent the diversity of Iranians: His father is a Christian Assyrian, his mother a Muslim Iranian. When Beitashour decided to play for Iran, he suffered some backlash, but he wanted to be in the World Cup — since the U.S. hadn’t called on him, this was his opportunity. Two other players — Omid Nazari from Sweden and Ferydoon Zandi from Germany — have also recently played for the Iranian national team, but they are not on the current roster.

Many national teams have players who were born in other countries and hold a dual-citizenship. The United States team has five German-American players, four of whom were born in Germany. In order to join a national team, FIFA requires that the player is born in the country, or has been a continuous resident of the country for at least five years after the age of eighteen, or has one biological parent or grandparent from the country they will represent. Once you have played for a country in an international competitive match, you are not allowed to switch nationalities.

While other football teams may include multinational identities, the situation is unusual for Iran, which, until fairly recently, did not have a large diaspora community (except in such nearby places as India). Iranian Islamic Revolution, however, sparked a huge migration. For example, as reported by Shirin Hakimzadeh for Migration Policy Institute, Iranian immigration to United States jumped from around 10,000 in the 1960s to 46,000 in the 1970s (mostly in the late ’70s), to 155,000 in the 1980s. Hakimzadeh writes, “In January 2006, the International Monetary Fund claimed that Iran ranks highest in brain drain among 91 developing and developed countries, with an estimated 150,000 to 180,000 educated people exiting per year.” The relationship between this diaspora and Iran has been a complicated one, with many opposing the government, so their integration into the fabric of Iranian identity is important, as they help to shape and define the Iranian image and identity in a global age.

The Iranian immigrant community has been transformed from one of exile to diaspora. It has moved away from the sense of loss, nostalgia, and hope of return to one of accepting its in-between status while trying to integrate with the host nation. Yet the community has also been afflicted by the relationship of Iran and the international community. James Clifford in the essay “Diasporas” from Cultural Anthropology, writes, “Peoples whose sense of identity is centrally defined by collective histories of displacement and violent loss cannot be ‘cured’ by merging into a new national community. This is especially true when they are the victims of ongoing, structural prejudice” (307). Most Iranian immigrants recognize this “violent loss” and continue to experience prejudice because of their country of origin. This diasporic condition has determined their identity and their relationship to Iran.

So as I watch Team Melli in the World Cup, I ask myself, what does it mean to be Iranian, and how is the Iranian diaspora helping to shape the Iranian identity? Iconic Iranian filmmakers like Kiarostami and the Makmalbaf family, who brought Iranian cinema to international attention, now live and make films outside of Iran. Kiarostami’s last two features were made in Tuscany and in Tokyo with no reference to Iran. Are these Iranian films? Do they still play a part in Iranian identity and culture?

 


1. I am not sure how American football — where you don’t use your feet, except when kicking — came to be called “football.”

The dialogue is from the movie’s subtitle, which loosely matches the original Persian.

Photos of the players are from FIFA.com.

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