There are sunsets, skies painted pink and red and orange and yellow, and there are sunsets in Tehran. The sun looked further away than ever atop my grandfather’s house in the heart of what I still remember as a gargantuan, sleepless city. My cousins and I alternated evenings on the roof playing basketball on a makeshift medal hoop. While we prayed the ball wouldn’t bounce off the three-story building into the raucous traffic below, we eventually switched to soccer, when the skyline was tinted a smoggy gold.
We used the same ball. It was an old, cheap soccer ball strewn with the typical black and white pentagons. It was so rock-solid, it bounced like a basketball and pained feet to kick even with shoes on. The games came after the early-evening nap — which is when I found out that’s a thing in Iran — and before late dinner plans were executed. The heat was unbearable, so when my cousins didn’t have me dodging around terrifying Tehran traffic during the day or sprinting around the bazaars looking to buy bubble gum, we waited to play soccer.
I don’t recall my cousins being particularly soccer-crazed, nor do I remember seeing many outright soccer fans in the streets. There was one soccer jersey I saw. It was the summer of 1997 and a teen had a Brazilian jersey on. It was a No. 9 shirt, Ronaldo.
The following summer the Iranian national team won its first — and still only — World Cup match, a 2-1 win over the United States in France. Back in the states and watching with the family, the sentiment for me being a half-Persian, half-American young sports fan was pure awkwardness. Guess it comes with the territory.
In the 16 years since that win over the U.S. and the 17 years since I spent a summer in Tehran, following the Iranian national team has proved to be a bit exasperating. The team stumbled in the 2006 World Cup losing to Mexico and Portugal and tying Algeria 1-1. It’s always been a struggle. There were players who starred in Europe — Mehdi Mahdavikia, Ali Karimi, Ali Daei — but the success of the team was largely built through the domestic league. Which isn’t saying much.
Missing out on 2010 in South Africa was harsh. But somehow the Iranian federation hired former Real Madrid manager and Manchester United assistant Carlos Querioz in 2011. There started the trek toward Brazil. For some reason, I kept mental notes of dates when Iran’s World Cup Qualifiers were taking place. There were 4-1 wins at Indonesia and 1-0 losses at home to Uzbekistan. Eventually a 1-0 win over South Korea, the last qualifying match for Brazil, cemented the trip.
The resulting phone call wasn’t immediate, but I remember talking to my dad about it.
There was reserved excitement on the other line. It’s one thing to do well in the World Cup, it’s another just to get there. With 14 of its 23 players playing in the small domestic league in Iran, a draw against Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia and Herzegovina wasn’t a nightmare, but wasn’t totally realistic.
There’s a beauty about Iranian fandom. It’s casual and laid back and hopes aren’t through the roof. It’s looked at more as an honor to be present at the kick than to actually start crunching the numbers of goal differentials or tactical aspects of the game. In the birthplace of "The Beautiful Game," Queiroz’s side showed tactical acumen. It wasn’t beautiful. It was ugly, the opposite of engaging. It was sheer defending, putting 10 men behind the ball and picking spots to counter. The watchability was, for soccer purists, agonizing.
It worked against Nigeria in the 0-0 opener.
It nearly worked against Lionel Messi and Argentina. Actually it did work. For 90 minutes and 34 seconds, the Iranians shifted side-to-side, not allowing one of the more talented teams in the world to find comfort. What transpired was illogical on that stage. Iran outplayed Argentina in the second half. Reza Ghoochannejhad had two chances to give the Iranians the lead in the second half, but couldn’t bury them.
Eventually, Messi took hold of it. One of those moments that seemed too good to be true, too unreal to be validated with a final whistle never came. Needing a win against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the final stage match, Iran looked mentally bogged down, just like its formation. They managed to score a goal in the 3-1 loss — a valid fear of mine heading into the tournament — yet the World Cup victories stayed staunch at just one.
Finishing last in a group at the World Cup is generally a negative. Moral victories don’t exist, because if they did, the heroic defensive outing against Messi and Argentina would be kept track of somewhere in the books of oh-so-very-close.
There was a point where the often-overwhelmed Iranians succeeded. They gave their country a shot at belief on the final day of the group stage of a World Cup. I could only imagine the scenes in Tehran. The streets no matter what probably remained gridlocked. Everyone was honking their horn in frustration. Teenagers walking around listening to music, people chatting on cellphones. It’s a different place Iran, but not so different in that fandom cannot catch fire. It did even after the loss to Argentina, the 1,500-to-1-odd side to win the World Cup was celebrated for a defeat in the streets of Tehran.
"We didn’t win, but it took the best footballer in the world to beat us," a fan told The Washington Post. "Our national dignity is safe."
Advancing to the knockout stage didn’t seem all that feasible in the beginning. Casually and more than likely in style, fans watched and applauded the three matches earned in three years of qualifying.
This World Cup tournament will play out and likely a side of megastars hoists the Cup at the Maracana in Rio De Janeiro on July 13. Perhaps another World Cup run leaves a group of kids kicking a rigid soccer ball on the roof of some apartment building at dusk while the city plays on.
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