How Iran is Using World Cup Appearance to Clean Up Its Image

During Iran’s opening World Cup match against Nigeria, the countrymen exemplified a different reality than one would expect from a country that is widely regarded as secretive, hostile, and aggressive towards the outside world.

Indeed, in our live blog of the match, we noted that both sides were showing the best sportsmanship we had seen up until that point in the tournament. Hugs, laughs, and even fives were exchanged by both teams throughout.

Both Iran and Nigeria have somewhat spotty reputations. But for Iran in particular, it looks as if they are hoping to make this rare World Cup experience a watershed moment in the PR problem that is their global image. That goes for on, as well as off the field.

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After the 0-0 match was said and done, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani tweeted a picture of himself comfortably watching the game on a couch– a photo which is remarkable because some say it is the first off-duty picture ever publicized of an Iranian president. Rouhani is also a Muslim cleric, so seeing him with no robe or turban, donning his team’s jersey and track pants is quite a break from tradition.

Pictures of Iran’s foreign minister and other diplomats were also released during the match, during a break from ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna.

Soccer in Iran is a certifiable phenomenon, with club matches drawing up to 100,000 spectators per game. In recent years, the sport has gained even more popularity than wrestling and weight-lifting, the country’s traditional sporting pastimes. Soccer’s popularity among women has especially taken off, which might come as a surprise to westerners who could assume that women might be barred from playing. Women are, however, barred from attending matches, though President Rouhani has recently ordered an investigation to see if that law should be overturned.

In terms of scoring points in religious and political tolerance, the Iranian team has also included half-Christian, American-born Steven Beitashour on the roster, whose parents are from the country. Goalkeeping coach Dan Gaspar is also an American citizen.

Iran’s Saturday matchup against Argentina is being regarded as the country’s biggest international matchup of all time. Up against Messi and his squad, the team is expected to do more damage control than to have much of a shot at winning.

Nevertheless, it will be yet another chance to show the world that regardless of the international sanctions and bad image imposed on their country, they are truly more complex than just a hardline political regime.

“I think [our World Cup appearance] is very, very important – more important than you can imagine,” Iranian journalist Kamran Ahmadpour told the UK’s Telegraph recently.

“We are part of the world, with a big history,” he said. “They can see us as their friends and not their enemy. We want to live with each other politely.”

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