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Soccersanct: Iran To Keep It 'Religious' At World Cup Qualifier

Iranian men cry during the Ashura commemorations that mark the killing of Imam Husayn, one of Shi'ite Islam's most revered figures, in Tehran in 2014.
Iranian men cry during the Ashura commemorations that mark the killing of Imam Husayn, one of Shi'ite Islam's most revered figures, in Tehran in 2014.

Stymied in their effort to reschedule a qualifier match for soccer's 2018 World Cup, Iranian officials are guaranteeing to uphold "religious norms" in connection with a major Shi'ite mourning commemoration when their national team meets South Korea this week in Tehran.

They predict huge black banners covering parts of Azadi Stadium, backup players clad in black, and dirges instead of taunts on October 11 as Iran's squad pursues a place in world soccer's biggest spectacle, slated to be played in Russia two years from now.

The match falls on the eve of the back-to-back holy days of Tasua and Ashura (October 11-12), the ninth and 10th days of the month of Muharram, which honor the martyrdom of Imam Husayn -- the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

"Everything has been planned for religious norms to be observed," Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said on October 9.

Fazli said world soccer's governing body, FIFA, and the South Korean side had both dismissed attempts to change the date of the game, which has drawn criticism among some conservative clerics and hard-liners in Iran for being disrespectful to Husayn's memory.

Ashura in Iran and in some other heavily Shi'ite Muslim countries is marked by charity in the form of food, the recitation of poems and chants in tribute to Imam Husayn's death in battle in Karbala in 680, and crowds of males chest-beating or self-flagellating to show their devotion to Husayn, whose refusal to recognize Umayyad legitimacy contributed to the overthrow of the second of early Islam's caliphates.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, the head of the Society of Seminary Teachers in the holy city of Qom and a former chairman of the powerful Assembly of Experts, urged a cancellation because it could send fans into joyous celebration at a time that demands solemnity.

"Any harm coming from the cancellation of the game will be offset by the benefit that comes from respecting Ashura," Yazdi was quoted as saying on October 2.

Speaking at Friday Prayers in the capital on October 7, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani allowed for the match taking place but laid down guidelines to ensure that it did not interfere with Ashura.

"The atmosphere of the match should be 100 percent Ashura and Karbala, the walls should be draped in black, the whole space should be covered in black, and there should be continuous 'Ya Husayn' chants from the crowd," Movahedi Kermani told worshipers, a reference to the Arabic phrase that is used to invoke the memory of Husayn.

Instead of clapping their hands, he said, fans should chant, "Ya Husayn."

The authorities appear to be on the same page. A cultural deputy at Iran's Sports Ministry said all the "values of Muharram" will be enforced during the match.

"By tomorrow," Abdolhamid Ahmadi told the semiofficial ISNA news agency on October 10, "all the different parts of the Azadi Stadium will be covered in black flags." Substitutes on Iran's bench will be wearing black, he added.

Ahmadi said that religious orators and mourning bands will appear in the stadium three hours before the game. "Cultural items, including shawls and headbands engraved the name of Imam Husayn," will also be distributed to fans at the stadium, he said.

He hinted that fans would be cued to chant religious slogans. "It has been predicted that during the match the audience will chant slogans that are suitable with these times," Ahmadi said without providing details.

The Mirror reported that Iran's embassy in Seoul has asked that Korean fans at the match avoid wearing bright colors, adding that South Korea's alternate uniforms are red, "the color worn by Shimr ibn Thil-Jawshan, who beheaded Imam Husayn."

The Iranian-South Korean rivalry has been particularly intense since the Koreans trounced Iran in the 1996 Asian Cup games in nearby United Arab Emirates.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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