Maziar Bahari opens his documentary, Football Iranian Style (2001), at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, where a large mural of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic until his death in 1989, peers down on the 110,000 soccer fans filling the bleachers. Like 75 percent of Iran’s population, most of the crowd is under the age of 25. Bahari’s lens focuses on a security guard chastising a dancing spectator and pushing him down into his seat. Undeterred, the young fan kisses the guard’s face and resumes his rabble rousing.

Football Iranian Style shows how the game that the world calls football is integral to the construction of urban culture in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The stadium — Azadi means freedom in Farsi — has become a rare social space where Iranian youth can transcend boundaries of authority and express themselves with relative lack of inhibition. Under the spell of football, complex ideological, political and economic divides seem to fade, before resolving again into the clear, tangible line between the reds and the blues — the colors of the most popular Iranian teams, Persepolis and Esteghlal. As one Iranian newspaper recently reported, matches between the reds and the blues are much more than simple football games; indeed, they have a deep impact on Iranian society. [1]

Bahari, for the past five years Newsweek’s correspondent in Iran, explores these connections between football and contemporary Iranian society in his documentary. Outside the imposing gates of Azadi, Mahin Gorji, a former journalist for several banned newspapers with a degree in literature from Tehran University, tells Bahari why women are forbidden from entering stadiums. “They just abuse the weakest in this country, and the weakest happen to be women,” she explains. “It’s a dream for some people to come to this stadium.” In Iran, gender segregation is a feature of the sport. Female players do not have access to proper training facilities, do not have their own leagues and cannot travel to play in international tournaments.

In 1994, the ban against female spectators in stadiums was lifted for the Asian youth championship qualifying matches. Five hundred women watched the opening day of the tournament at Shahid Shirudi Stadium in Tehran. The following day, however, women were once again barred from this important social space. The Iranian Football Federation issued a statement declaring, “Unfortunately, a small number of football fans have not been able to conform to the Islamic-human norms of our system. Therefore, we will not be able to admit sisters into football stadiums.” [2]

But Iranian women are not impervious to soccer fetishism. They watch the matches on television, read about the players in newspapers and call in to chat with them on live radio. Each week, women join the streams of fans who head to the Davudieh training grounds in the foothills of the Alborz mountains north of Tehran. There, they can watch their favorite footballers drill, get their autographs and snap their photos. Bahari films Sara, who has traveled two hours from her home in southern Tehran to see her hero, Hamid Estili, in person. As Estili sits in his BMW, trying to drive past the hordes of fans, Sara gathers her courage, taps on his car window and gives him a bouquet of red roses.

On November 29, 1997, the Iranian national team defeated Australia, qualifying to play in the World Cup for the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic. The football victory came a few months after the election of President Mohammad Khatami. Tehran erupted. Bahari includes several minutes of footage of Tehran’s streets that night, shot by the renowned photographer and cameraman Kaveh Golestan, who lost his life in Iraq in April 2003 while covering the war for the BBC. Men and women danced in the streets to blacklisted music. Young and old sang nationalist songs and waved the flag. The security forces were nowhere to be found. In the film, the journalist Gorji recalls that night, “I think we heard the silenced screams of the Iranian youth for the first time in 20 years.”

In the subsequent 1998 World Cup faceoff between the US and Iranian national teams, Hamid Estili scored the most important goal in Iranian football history. When Estili’s header sailed past the American goalkeeper, the teem-eh melli was on the way to its eventual 2-1 victory. “The roars and screams as the ball nestled in the net shook the foundations of the Stade Gerland,” reported the Guardian, “if not of the Islamic Republic.” Iran’s success in the 1998 World Cup was, as Bahari’s film notes, a turning point in the history of the Islamic Republic.

The 1998 World Cup signaled a historic turn for Iranians in the diaspora as well. After several troubled coaching changes in the critical months leading up to the World Cup, Jalal Talebi was appointed as the national team’s head coach. Talebi had left Iran in 1980 to take up residence in California. The sense of victory was shared by Iranian nationals inside and outside the country. “Many Iranians who are living abroad now proudly confess that they’re Iranian,” observes Estili on the national team’s website. “That victory unified all the Iranians.” In an interview, Bahari added, “For 25 years, the Iranian diaspora and Iranians inside the country didn’t have a common cause to cheer for. Football gave them a chance to do that.” [3]

The friendly encounter between Iranians and Americans on the field and in the stands at the World Cup helped nudge the two states into cautious openings of more formal relations. On the heels of Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Palme D’Or Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Khatami’s highly publicized interview on CNN, American public opinion towards Iran showed signs of softening. In a June 1998 speech, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the administration was viewing developments in Iran with interest “both with regard to the possibility of Iran assuming its rightful place in the world community, and the chance of better bilateral ties.”

Some of the stars from the 1998 World Cup team were signed by European clubs. Ali Daei, still the captain of Iran’s national squad, went on to play for Hertha Berlin in Germany, where a heavy metal band has recorded a single in his honor. “Singen hey, singen hey,” say the lyrics of the rock song. “Singen Ali, Ali Daei.” “Ali Daei is cool,” a German fan confirms for Bahari’s camera. Naturally, athletes like Daei who play in leagues and exhibition games outside of Iran attract a large following among the Iranian diaspora community. “Our people are looking for something to fill the void in their lives,” Daei explains to Bahari in Berlin. “Our national football has become a uniting factor of our people all over the world.”

Indeed, key matches of the teem-eh melli have become deeply imbricated with Iranian nationalism. On the day of the Iran-Iraq match in the 2001 Asia Cup Tournament, Bahari talks with Iranian veterans of the war between the two countries from 1980-1988. A man who was a POW in Iraq for nine years tells the filmmaker why the game is important: “Our national team should be sensitive to the different sentiments in this country and people’s expectations. They should always pay attention to the realities of our society and the history of our nation.” Another veteran, whose war wounds have left him paralyzed, sees the match between Iran and Iraq as an extension of the war: “Now it’s the athletes who should carry on the struggle. I want them to be victorious in this battle as well.”

As the game is broadcast on television, Bahari’s documentary cuts between viewers in a traditional teahouse and a hospital for veterans of the Iran-Iraq war who suffer from spinal injuries. The crowd at the teahouse burn incense and send prayers for Iran’s success. The war veterans watch from the solitude of their hospital beds. In the thirty-second minute of the second half, Ali Daei made his move. Stepping over the Iraqi goalkeeper who was sprawled on his back on the field, Daei managed to kick the ball into the net. It wasn’t a pretty goal, but it assured an Iranian victory.

Iran’s national team faltered in the run-up to the 2001 World Cup. After an unexpected loss to Bahrain, football spectators spilled into the streets, sparking the largest protests since Khatami’s rise to power in 1997. By then, Khatami had been reelected, but his promises of reform had fallen short. The scene was part street party, part political protest. Chanting slogans against Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader of the post-revolutionary state, some of the youth clashed with riot police, who used batons and tear gas in making 1,000 arrests. Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of the president and a member of Parliament, said the protests marked the youth’s frustration at “excessive interference in people’s private lives.” [4] Heated debates ensued among politicians about the political meaning of the protests and the appropriate regime response. Ayatollah Khamenei cautioned that “lay liberalism” was threatening the “ideological environment” in Iran, while President Khatami urged soccer fans attending subsequent matches to behave “in accordance with the dignity and culture of the Iranian youth.” [5]

Bahari explains the intersection of politics and sports. “I think in a country where the government has tried (although it has failed) to control every aspect of people’s lives for 25 years, everything becomes politicized. Even sports,” he notes. “At the same time, in the absence of political parties and places where young people can express their opinions…, [football] becomes a political forum.”

The ambiguous relationship of the clerical establishment with football, and with film, frames the ending of Bahari’s film. Bahari shares a taxi with an anonymous cleric and begins talking with him about the film he is making on football. The cleric shares his assessment of the national team’s performance in the Asian Cup Tournament. Bahari asks if he could please face the camera while speaking. The cleric finally turns briefly to the camera, his face in a tangled scowl. When Bahari asks his views on football in general, the cleric assumes an authoritative tone, declaring, “I think it’s a waste of time.” Bahari points out that he himself had admitted to watching the games on television; the cleric retorts that he only does so as a diversion in between his religious studies. Clearly perturbed with the questioning camera in the back seat of the taxi, the cleric pleads with the driver, “Are we there yet?” The camera fades out, and the film credits roll to the German heavy metal ballad: “Singen hey, singen Ali, Ali Daei.”

The power of Bahari’s film lies at the confluence of film and football, showing the ways that both arenas refract and reflect the complex ways that various social groups engage with the political structures of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Iran is a country in transition from a system which resembled a theocracy to a system which resembles democracy,” observes Bahari in an interview. “One of the most confusing and at the same time most attractive characteristics of Iran is that nothing is definite.” As a documentary filmmaker capturing important aspects of this transition, Bahari’s work becomes a process of negotiation mediated by the Iranian state on the one hand and the global market on the other. Documentary films are less scrutinized by the state’s censors than feature films, but as Bahari notes, “There are thresholds of tolerance which are called red lines. There are no written laws but everyone knows what these red lines are.”

The mainstream Iranian film industry is clearly focused on feature films. In recent years, some attempts have been made to provide more support for documentaries. [6]  Documentary filmmakers have tried to organize themselves, but with mixed results, according to Bahari: “Iranians these days don’t trust groups or causes because they’ve been constantly betrayed by parties and ideologies throughout their history.” Some independent documentary films are shown as part of the state-sponsored festivals, such as the Fajr and Green Festivals. But as Bahari points out, independent films with a critical social and political stance are not shown on Iranian television, “which is one of the most conservative establishments in the country. So we are limited to cultural centers, festivals and private screenings. In fact, Football was a hit among student groups, and it was shown all over the country in a touring festival organized by a student group.” Barriers of access to audiences and financial resources necessitate a turn to the global market. “We are living at a time in Iran when many things cannot be talked about or shown inside the country,” explains Bahari. “So as a filmmaker who makes a living from making films, I have to have the global audience in mind.” Football Iranian Style received acclaim in the international circuit. It was screened at festivals in Brisbane, Melbourne, Szolnok, Pusan and Helsinki, and won the Best Documentary Film Award at the 2002 Festival de Sevilla. [7]

Football Iranian Style was the only Iranian film selected for the 2003 Margaret Meade Festival, the most important venue for international documentary films in the United States, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in November. Following its initial screening at the festival, which was the documentary’s US premiere, the audience shared their impressions of the film. One American viewer said it gave her a visual connection with Iran. “This film gave me visual references of ordinary daily life in Iran. Before seeing this film, I had no visual imagery of the place. In my mind, Iran was an empty map.”


[1] Hambestagi, October 16, 2003.
[2] Chicago Tribune, July 22, 1994 A group of 300 Irish women were allowed to attend the Iran-Ireland World Cup playoff game at Azadi Stadium in November 2001.
[3] All quotes by Bahari in this artcle are from an interview with the author, November 6, 2003.
[4] Economist, November 3, 2001.
[5] Guardian, November 10, 2001.
[6]] See Persheng Vaziri, “Iranian Documentary Cinema: Between Reality and Fiction,” Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002) and the website of the Association of Iranian Documentary Producers at Ziba Mir-Hosseini has written about the complex process of negotiation involved in her documentary on Iran, Divorce Iranian Style, in “Negotiating the Politics of Gender in Iran: An Ethnography of Documentaries,” in Richard Tapper, ed. The New Iranian Cinema (London: I. B. Tauris, 2002).
[7] Bahari’s next film, And Along Came a Spider (2002), about a serial killer in Mashhad who murdered 16 prostitutes, will appear on HBO next year. He also produced the film Dying to be Apart, about the Iranian conjoined twins Laleh and Ladan Bijani, which aired on Britain’s Channel 4 in September 2003.

How to cite this article:

Shiva Balaghi "Football and Film in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Middle East Report 229 (Winter 2003).

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