A Short History of the Iranian Soccer

Football (soccer) was introduced to Iran in the first decade of the twentieth century by British residents of the country including diplomats, employees of the oil industry, officers of the South Persia Rifles and by Christian missionaries who included it in their schools' physical education curriculum. During the reign of Reza Shah, the government encouraged football and other team sports, believing that their popularization would favor the emergence of a spirit of cooperation among Iranians.

Gradually, Iranians became interested in soccer in the 1930's when they created leagues of varsity teams. An Iranian victory against a visiting Israeli team in 1968 caused Iranians to be gripped by football fever and henceforth football became the country's main spectator sport. In fact, in the last years of the Pahlavi period some of the Islamists who were beginning to appear on the scene claimed that the football craze of the 1960's was a sinister plot by the government to divert public attention from "serious" matters.

After the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic did not place sports high on its agenda and consequently soccer suffered greatly, particularly since the state was suspicious of young people's love of the game. Nevertheless, the popularity of soccer persisted among Iranians and by the late 1980’s media sports coverage was allowed to expand. In November 1997, Iran's qualification for the World Cup in France caused widespread public celebration in the country.

As elsewhere in the world, successive Iranian regimes have tried to use sports for internal and external legitimation. However, judging by tensions and jealousies exhibited during 1997 and 1998 between certain star players, coaches, and functionaries in Iranian football, the dream of the modernizers of the 1930's, which was to inculcate a spirit of cooperation through the popularization of team sports, has not yet fully materialized.

Houshang E. Chehabi
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