Iranians are obsessed with football. Thousands watched the televised Iran-Brazil friendly on October 7, which took place in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). One young Iranian said ahead of the game that he was "so excited" to see it live from the UAE's Abu Dhabi stadium.
Another fan, a freelance sports journalist who asked to be identified as Mehdi, said: "Even though I'm 26 and I'm not supposed to be excited, I'm really excited about seeing my country...play against Brazil, one of the best teams in the world."
Iran lost 3-0, but Mehdi – whose first memory as a child was the 1990 World Cup – is no fair weather fan. For him, and for many Iranians, football is more than just a sport. The country was left with few cultural exports after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. So football matches -- particularly those played abroad -- tend to carry the full weight of national identity.
Football's mass appeal also bridges many currents of Iranian society, including politics and religion. The latter was picked up by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi in his award-winning 2006 film "Offside,"
about a group of Iranian girls who dress up as boys in order to watch a football match in Tehran. (Iranian women are not allowed into football stadiums.)
Nor has football escaped the watchful eye of the government. In recent years, commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- a branch of the Iranian military that is thought to have extensive assets in far-flung sectors of the economy -- have gradually permeated Iran's football scene.
"The Iranian premiere division has 18 teams," Mehdi explains. "Seventeen of them are somehow connected to the government," adding that the 18th is run by "one person who used to be with the Revolutionary Guards,” referring to Hossein Hedayati of the Tehran team Steel Azin.
The Iranian government in football (click to enlarge)
Whether this creeping IRGC participation is simply an effort to cash in on a lucrative sports market or is part of some bigger plan is not known. What is certain is that it has left current and former Revolutionary Guards members poised to exert considerable influence on an aspect of Iranian life that has until now remained notably apolitical.
Back in 2002, Revolutionary Guard commander Akbar Ghamkhar became general director the popular Persepolis football team, the first member of the IRGC to manage one of the two top-notch Tehran teams -- Persepolis and Esteghal. (Ghamkhar is currently the head of the Tourism and Travel Ministry in Iran.)
It took off from there, Mehdi says, partly because Revolutionary Guards protect football team owners.
"For example, one of your players gets drunk" -- alcohol is forbidden in Iran -- "and everyone knows," he says, so Revolutionary Guards use their "force" to discourage newspapers from writing about the incident.
When star winger Ali Karimi was recently accused of breaking his fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, he was temporarily suspended from his Steel Azin team. But after football fans began demonstrating, Karimi was quickly reinstated
. The situation prompted the resignation of the team's general director and prominent Revolutionary Guards commander Mostafa Ajorloo. (Ajorloo remains the head of the Iranian football union, an informal organization of club owners.)
The Basij -- the volunteer arm of the Revolutionary Guards -- is also involved in football. They have their own association called the Sport Organization of the Militia, which is headed by Revolutionary Guards Brigadier Mohammad-Reza Naghdi.
Sport Organization of the Militia members shadow teams to identify players who are also members of the volunteer force. Ideology aside, many young people in Iran join the Basij because it can help them get into Iran's hyper-competitive universities or because it offers a path to the highest-paying jobs in the country -- government-paid positions -- or other benefits. Basij members recruit football players who have joined the volunteer force for Basij-only teams that play each other under the auspices of the Sport Organization of the Militia. The organization also serves as a loose collective of all Revolutionary Guards and Basij involved in football in Iran.
The Basij commonly ride along with football teams in order to report bad behavior, such as when several players of the Iranian national team wore green armbands to protest the 2009 presidential election results during a high-profile World Cup qualifier last year in Seoul. (Two of the six protesting players quickly resigned from the team.)
There is a considerable amount of money in football in Iran. Teams party or fully owned by the government get massive tax breaks, which is the reason there are only two private teams in all of Iran. Both teams are second-tier, unable to compete with football players' sky-high salaries. (Mehdi claims that players receive salaries of "up to $800,000 a year," in a country with an average yearly income of roughly $3,500).
The highest-ranking Revolutionary Guards commander currently involved with football is Aziz Mohammadi, who heads the Iranian League Organization. The organization manages league championships in Iran, earning billions of dollars on domestic broadcasts.
Revolutionary Guards commanders have been strengthening their influence. In the religious city of Qom, Revolutionary Guards Commander Shahryari is the general director of Sabaye Qom, a team owned by the manufacturing arm of the Armed Forces' Battery Industry.
In Shiraz, the capital of Fars Province, the Revolutionary Guards has its own football team (Fajr-e Moghavemat-e Sepasi), which is managed by Revolutionary Guards Colonel Jafar Jafari.
Traktorsazi is the most famous team in Tabriz, the fourth-largest city in Iran and capital of the country's East Azerbaijan Province. The team's former manager is Revolutionary Guards Commander Naser Shafagh, but the team is now run by another commander, Mohammed Jafari.
Revolutionary Guards Commander Ali Salahi runs two major teams -- Pas-e Mashhad and Payam-e Mashhad -- in Mashhad, the capital of Khorasan-e Razavi Province. But Revolutionary Guards Commander Hashem Ghiasi is the most influential figure in Mashhad football because he is the deputy to the province's top Revolutionary Guards commander.
Also, high-ranking Revolutionary Guards Commander Karim Mallahi is the general director of the well-known Hamedan team. For years, he was also managing the Tehran and Mashhad teams.
Mehdi says that while the situation might seem strange to football fans in the West, he isn't really surprised.
"After the war [with Iraq] finished in 1988, all the Revolutionary Guards, they didn't have anything to do," he says. He thinks they decided to get involved in the coolest thing around -- football. And that kicked the whole thing off.
-- Kristin Deasy(Radio Farda's Denise Ajiri, Morad Vaisibiame, and Payam Razi contributed to this report.)