A Journey into the Wild, Complex and Unique World of Football in Iran

James MontagueSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 8, 2018


June 2017, Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

In the video, the two dozen or so members of the Iranian national football squad sit in two rows, facing each other. The long, modestly appointed, high-ceilinged room is the office of the presidential administration in central Tehran, the Iranian capital. The players are patiently, almost nervously waiting to begin. Between the two rows of men at the end of the room is the country's president, Hassan Rouhani, wearing a white turban and sitting on a chair trimmed with gold leaf, the sole sign of presidential opulence. Behind him hang two portraits. Over his right shoulder, the image of Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, the ayatollah who led the 1979 Islamic revolution, transforming Iran and its relationship with the rest of the world. Over his left, the portrait of Iran's current supreme leader, and the true and final arbiter of power in the Islamic Republic today, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Two days ago Iran qualified for their fifth World Cup with ease. They had beaten Uzbekistan 2-0 in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. The national team, also known as Team Melli, had gone unbeaten during qualification as a new generation of Iranian stars were born. Sardar Azmoun, Iran's highly regarded striker, had scored the opening goal, set up by the equally talented young winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh. Tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate.

Football, and especially the men's national team, is often a rare good news story for a country that has been an international pariah for nearly four decades, and whose economy and civil society have withered as a result. So now, today, the president of the country wants to honour the team for making it to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the third team after Russia and Brazil to qualify. "It was my wish to receive you here," President Rouhani tells the room, "and, as the representative of the people, to congratulate you."

Coach Carlos Queiroz is the first to approach the president and warmly shakes his hand. The combative Portuguese leader had masterminded the team's success. This will be his second World Cup with Iran, although he had taken South Africa to the 2002 World Cup (resigning before the tournament began after falling out with the South African federation) and his native Portugal to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He made his name as Sir Alex Ferguson's highly rated assistant at Manchester United before taking charge of Real Madrid. But the Portugal job ended in recriminations that almost led to a ban from international football, a series of misfortunes that eventually brought him to Iran in 2011, when he was at his lowest ebb. He has been here ever since.

The players rise and meet the president, one by one, before the captain of Iran finally approaches. Masoud Shojaei is one of the squad's elder statesmen. He has been to two previous World Cups and, despite having turned 33 a few days before, is still playing in Europe, in the Greek league for Panionios. Shojaei is respected both inside and outside the game, and not just for his football. He has spoken out on issues that affect ordinary Iranians, whether civil rights or the hidden issue of child sex abuse. He hands President Rouhani an Iranian team jersey signed by the whole squad and begins to speak.

Afterwards, a film crew is waiting outside to ask the captain what he said to the president. "Many, many women in Iran love to watch football matches played by men," says Shojaei disarmingly, looking like a film star as he talks. He had taken his moment with the president to raise another issue: the ongoing ban of women from Iranian football stadiums. "If it is agreed to allow women in, a stadium should be built with the capacity of 200,000," he continues, "because just as many women as men will be there."

March 2018, Tehran

It is still six hours before kick-off, but the Azadi is almost full and already ear-piercingly loud. The stadium is a vast, undulating concrete bowl, built in the early 1970s during the days of the Shah. In 1997 almost 130,000 people came here to watch Iran face Australia in the playoff to qualify for France '98. But today, the capacity has been reduced to 100,000, split evenly between Iran's two biggest teams: the blue half of Esteghlal and the red half of Persepolis.

The Tehran Derby is probably the biggest football match in the world you've never heard of, a city rivalry to match Liverpool-Everton or Milan-Inter. The game could have been sold out five times over. "I took part in three derbies, and I drew all three of them because everybody plays not to lose," said Afshin Ghotbi, the former Iran national team and Persepolis coach who won the league title during his sole season managing the club in 2007-08. The pressure to win this game, he said, was immense. "If you lose the game, regardless of what you win, even if you win the championship, you are defined by it."

Today is extra special. Persepolis have dominated the Persian Gulf Pro League this season and are 15 points clear of their nearest rivals. Esteghlal have virtually no chance of catching up, but they do have the chance to ruin the party, which is almost as important.

There is also to be a special guest at the game. Under portraits of Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei, a sign has been hung between the top and bottom tiers: "Welcome Infantino." The FIFA president is visiting Iran. It was hoped Gianni Infantino's visit might have an important political dimension. As loud and as impressive as the 100,000-strong crowd was, there wasn't a single woman in attendance (officially) due to a stadium ban. Two months previously, Saudi Arabia, the other big nation to ban women from football stadiums, had announced that women would be allowed to attend matches.

Infantino, his distinctive baldpate visible even from the side of the pitch, takes his place as the match is finally about to start. The referee's whistle can't be heard over the noise. But outside, a group of fans were definitely not going to be able to watch their teams play. As Infantino and 100,000 other people watch the Tehran Derby begin, 35 young women and girls, some dressed as men and wearing fake beards, are being corralled into police vans.

The world's first glimpse of Iranian football, outside of Asia, came at the 1978 World Cup. It was Iran's first, and the team believed they had a good chance to compete. They had just won their third consecutive Asian Cup—the equivalent of the European Championship—and qualified for a World Cup when only 16 teams made it.

There was no shame in Iran losing their opening game against the Netherlands, even with Johan Cruyff's absence. Their second game, however, would make headlines worldwide when they drew 1-1 with Scotland. A loss to Peru saw Iran's World Cup end. Iran's Islamic Revolution took place six months later.

Football took a backseat. The league had already been halted for other reasons. Neighbouring Iraq, whose president Saddam Hussein was an ally of the U.S., had invaded, sparking the Iran-Iraq War. Every fit and able man was called to service.

The great generation of '78 went their separate ways. Some went into politics. Hassan Nayebagha and Bahram Mavaddat became leading figures in the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), a leftist anti-Islamic Republic movement that was considered a terrorist organisation by the U.S. until 2012. The captain of the national team, Habib Khabiri, was arrested, tortured and executed in 1984 for supporting them.

The national team didn't attempt to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, but domestic football began to return slowly. "Some of the players from '78 started playing in unofficial games in dusty grounds," said Pejman Rahbar, editor-in-chief of Iran's biggest sports website, Varzesh3. "Something changed in 1986 after the World Cup." For one, Iraq qualified and "some players left Iran to play abroad for Arab teams." That experience and exposure eventually led to the restarting of the league, although it only really began, fully, in 1993.

By then, Imam Khomeini had died and was replaced by the current supreme leader. And by the time France '98 came about, Iran had a relative reformist in power. A liberal cleric, Mohammad Khatami, had managed to get elected president, promising to steer reforms and give greater freedoms. In their first World Cup in 20 years, Iran was drawn in the same group as the "Great Shaytan" itself: the United States. What happened next is one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history. With diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. completely severed since the Iranian hostage crisis, the game was the first public meeting between the two in almost two decades.

Iran's victory over USA in 1998 delighted the Iranian people
Iran's victory over USA in 1998 delighted the Iranian peoplePASCAL GEORGE/Getty Images

When they met on the pitch, Iran smothered the U.S. with kindness, handing over bunches of flowers and a large silver shield. U.S. captain Thomas Dooley could barely carry it all back to the dugout. He only had a small pendant to hand his counterpart, Ahmadreza Abedzadeh, in return. "All we cared about, our only goal, was to win against the USA," the team's star striker and world-record international goalscorer Ali Daei told me in 2006. And win they did, a famous 2-1 victory. Back in Tehran, a million people took to the streets to celebrate, the biggest public gathering since the funeral of Imam Khomeini in 1989. "Tonight, again, the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands," Iran's supreme leader told the nation.

The euphoria was short-lived. Khatami's reformist agenda was stymied by radical forces within Iran's labyrinthine power structure. By 2006, Iran had again qualified for the World Cup, but this time there would be no fairy-tale story of detente and reform. The hardline populist former mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had been elected president. He was a huge football fan and would turn up for training to see arguably Iran's greatest generation of players. There was the now-veteran Ali Daei; Mehdi Mahdavikia, who spent 12 years in Germany; midfielder Ali Karimi, who had been signed by Bayern Munich; and a young midfielder by the name of Masoud Shojaei.

George W. Bush's White House had labelled Iran part of the so-called "Axis of Evil" alongside Iraq and North Korea. Politicians from around the world called for Iran to be thrown out of the World Cup after Ahmadinejad made several comments diminishing the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust, as well as for concerns about Iran's rapidly growing nuclear capability.

My first experience of football in the country came before the 2006 World Cup and was not what I expected. Outside the front gates of the Azadi, before Iran was due to play Costa Rica in a pre-World Cup warm-up, dozens of women were angrily protesting that they were banned from watching matches. The police and security trying to stop them looked perplexed, an image that to this day has never left me. "It's the atmosphere in the ground," my guide explained as we passed by. "The swearing, the bad language. It's just not suitable."

Anti-Iran protests followed the team everywhere they went during the World Cup in Germany. And the team itself was beset by injury, especially to Karimi, who wasn't fit but played anyway. Iran lost to Mexico and Portugal and limped out after gaining a single point, against Angola.

Qualification for 2010 was even more fraught. Ali Daei was drafted in as coach and later sacked. So the Iranian football federation turned to one place that no one thought they would: America.

Afshin Ghotbi returned from America to manage in Iran
Afshin Ghotbi returned from America to manage in IranBEHROUZ MEHRI/Getty Images

When Afshin Ghotbi was 13 years old he left Iran for the U.S, two years before the 1979 revolution. Unable to go home, he settled in California and became a soccer coach. He was hired in 2007 as coach of Persepolis. When he arrived in Iran, the first time he had been back since leaving, he was greeted by his mother and tens of thousands of adoring fans. He brought Persepolis the title at the first time of trying with virtually the last kick of the season in the Azadi Stadium. Ten months later he was hired for the national team, even though some radical voices were deeply sceptical about his appointment. "I was always considered an outsider by some," he said.

Amazingly, Ghotbi almost salvaged qualification. It came down to the final match against South Korea in Seoul: Win and they were through. Back in Iran huge anti-government protests—the Green Movement—had risen up to challenge the 2009 presidential election results, which protesters believed had been stolen by Ahmadinejad. The players in Seoul watched everything unfold on TV while getting news from home that friends and loved ones had been arrested or even killed during the protests.

At the game, seven of the starting players, including Karimi and Shojaei, wore green wristbands. It was widely seen as support for the protesters. "I asked the players, but they were not going to tell me," Ghotbi recalled when I ask him what happened at half-time. "One player [Karimi] told me they were wearing it as a religious symbol. I thought, then why don't you wear the green every game? It's the moment that we stopped asking about it."

Iran went ahead 1-0 at 52 minutes thanks to a goal from Shojaei, but they also missed several chances, and then-Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung scored a late equaliser. "To this day I am sad about it," Ghotbi said. "You think back to those moments, what would happen if the political landscape was different." Iran was out and the players returned home to face the music. Conservative newspapers declared that the players who wore the wristbands would be banned from the national team for life and that those who played on foreign teams would be subject to travel bans. "Honestly, nobody ever told me you could not play a player or another player," said Ghotbi, who stayed on until January 2011. Several of those players retired, but Shojaei and Karimi played again for the national team.

So, next came Queiroz, a rumbustious, live-wire character who had just come out of a bruising relationship with Portugal. He was hired during the last years of Ahmadinejad's administration. In 2013 Ahmadinejad was replaced by current president Hassan Rouhani. He wasn't quite the reformist that Khatami was, but for many Iranians, after Ahmadinejad, almost anyone would do. Improved relations with the U.S. government under President Barack Obama led to a deal that froze Iran's nuclear programme in return, in theory, for an end to the country's economic isolation.

Queiroz took Iran to Brazil 2014 and was unlucky with a limited side. They fought out a goalless draw against African champions Nigeria and only lost to Argentina thanks to a 90th-minute golazo from Lionel Messi. The 3-1 defeat to Bosnia and Herzegovina was immaterial.

Queiroz has guided Iran to a second successive World Cup
Queiroz has guided Iran to a second successive World CupATTA KENARE/Getty Images

The national team roared back with an unbeaten qualification for Russia 2018, playing attractive, attacking football. But the campaign still featured controversy after qualification was secured. Shojaei and his international teammate Ehsan Hajsafi had both signed for Greek Superleague side Panionios, which had reached the qualification round of the Europa League. They were drawn against Israeli side Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Ever since the revolution, Iran has refused to recognise the state of Israel, and there has been an unofficial policy that sportsmen and women avoid all contact with their Israeli counterparts during international competition. The issue has come up in wrestling, judo, swimming and boxing. But Shojaei and Hajsafi were now in a professional game, under contract with their Greek club. Avoiding the first game in Israel was easy enough, as it is against Iranian law for citizens to visit Israel, but the return in Greece saw the pair put under enormous pressure. They decided to play, but Panionios lost anyway, and the reaction from some officials in Iran was furious. "Shojaei and Hajsafi have no place in Iran's national football team anymore," said Mohammad Reza Davarzani, a senior official in the Youth Affairs and Sports Ministry. "Playing against the representative of a loathsome regime ... is unacceptable for our nation."

With Iran's spot at Russia 2018 secured, Queiroz's next squad for the final two qualification matches came under intense scrutiny. Would the two players be picked? Hajsafi took to Instagram to explain why he played (the post was later deleted). It wasn't quite a full apology, but he stayed in the squad. Shojaei didn't.

Queiroz was not at the Azadi Stadium for the derby. He was in Russia for a meeting of coaches going to the World Cup, but he was due to return shortly after. As the game begins, it is clear what Afshin Ghotbi meant. The noise pitch-side is almost too much to bear. The game is scrappy and disjointed. No one wants to make a mistake. And then, finally, there is a partial respite. Persepolis lose possession cheaply and Esteghlal attack. A scramble in the six-yard box sees Iranian international defender Voria Ghafouri shoot against one post and then another before it finally goes in. The Persepolis half of the stadium falls silent, while the blue half is a riot of faraway noise and blue smoke.

Supporters of both teams sitting where the two meet, underneath the sign welcoming Gianni Infantino, begin to fight each other and throw broken chairs. Rocks start to rain down all around us. One lands next to my feet. Finally, the referee blows the whistle for full-time. Esteghlal have won 1-0 to ruin Persepolis' party. The blue half of the stadium celebrate as if their team has won the league.

Meanwhile, in the Vozara Detention Center, a jail often used to hold women for morality crimes, a kindly young soldier is breaking the news of Esteghlal's win to a roomful of female prisoners, some wearing blue, some wearing red and some still wearing the fake beards they had arrived with. Half the room celebrate, while the other half mourn.

The derby had been a disaster for Persepolis fans, but it had been worse for Sara. She was one of the 35 women and girls who had been arrested and detained for trying to enter the Azadi Stadium. "All these years I would have loved to watch the game in the stadium and experience the atmosphere," she says when we meet. "When you love the game, you want to see the game and the players, close. Not at home." We are sitting in a cafe in central Tehran, where we could be as incongruous as possible.

Sara, a student, is nervous. She asked not to reveal her real name as she feared she'd be punished for speaking out about the incident. It was the first time she had been arrested, although she would frequently laugh at the sheer absurdity of what she had just seen. "They [the police] could not understand the love that was inside the hearts of these girls," she says. "They really think that these sorts of things belong to men." She had never seen Persepolis, a club she had supported since she was five, play live. There had been a few attempts to watch the national team play. At last year's final World Cup qualifier against Syria, Sara even managed to buy tickets, but she and her friends were denied entry.

Female Iranian fans need to travel outside the country to watch their team
Female Iranian fans need to travel outside the country to watch their teamOZAN KOSE/Getty Images

Still, Sara thought the derby would be a huge event, and besides, Infantino would be in the crowd. She told her nervous colleagues the day before the game there was no way anyone would be arrested with the FIFA president there. There was, she explains, no actual law against women entering stadiums. It was just something that had been done once and had continued ever since. But at the stadium, her group was denied entry and told they would be arrested if they didn't leave.

"The Ershad [Iran's morality police] surrounded our car, and they were not nice," she says of the moment she was arrested. "But they didn't touch us because they were religious and they don't touch women. They just told us we should wait for the female guards to arrest us." The situation deteriorated when the guards saw other fans taking pictures of the women. They were all taken to a holding cell, where they met other women who had been caught. Half of them were wearing fake beards. Four vans came to take them away to Vozara. "We were terrified," she says. One of the girls was just 13.

"It was just like Offside!" Sara adds, referencing the 2006 film directed by Jafar Panahi that deals with a group of women's attempts to get into the Azadi Stadium dressed as boys. Panahi was arrested in 2010 and convicted of spreading propaganda against the Iranian regime. He is currently banned from leaving Iran.

The Iranian authorities would later confirm the women had been held but claimed they had not been arrested. An Interior Ministry spokesman told the Tasnim News Agency the women were merely being kept in a "suitable location" until after the game.

Jail wasn't quite the place Sara thought it would be. For one, all 35 were put in the same room. They weren't allowed to keep their phones, but some smuggled theirs in. A selfie that one of the women took spread like fire online. They all exchanged numbers and tips about what to do next time.

"They were laughing all the time and talking about how to get in the next time. In front of the guards!" Sara says. "What should they wear? What should they do? How should they walk to look like men?"

How do you pretend to walk like a man, I ask?

She leans back, trying to give an impression of a man walking, chest puffed, like Marlon Brando's Godfather. "You should put your legs apart from each other and walk like that," she adds, giving a dictionary definition of manspreading.

No women were allowed in to watch the Tehran derby
No women were allowed in to watch the Tehran derbyJames Montague

The room was more or less split between Esteghlal and Persepolis fans. When the young soldier took pity on them and relayed the score, the room erupted. "Half of us were screaming! It was very funny," Sara says. Later, they were each brought to interrogation rooms and then processed for their attempts to enter into a stadium illegally. "Even though there is no such thing," she quickly adds. They each had their photo taken, and after six hours they were released.

Their story became global news, but Infantino had little to say, and there would be no direct public mention of the stadium ban issue when he was in Iran. Infantino held a press conference with no questions on the ban. When a female journalist tried to ask him about it during a walk-and-talk later, he ignored her. "When he came here, he didn't say anything! I don't trust him," Sara says.

The arrests won't stop Sara or others from attempting to enter stadiums in the future. Women had been allowed, just a few weeks before, to watch men's basketball games. One thing that would help is more support from men, especially sportsmen. "I saw girls in jail that were really anxious about the result of the game, but none of the players [of Esteghlal or Persepolis] spoke about us," Sara says. It's likely that others, she believes, have seen what has happened to Shojaei and fear losing their place in their team and, eventually, their livelihood. "I hope one day they actually care for half of the country and pay attention to us."

The one exception is Shojaei. "I remember the day he talked about it," Sara says. "We were so happy that the captain of the national team is talking about our issues."

Persepolis was due to play in an Asian Champions League match in a few days' time, but Sara wouldn't be trying to get into this one. She would wait, learn and try again later. "Going into the stadium comes out of my heart," she says before we make sure no one is following us and leave in separate directions. "I am doing this not just because it is a right we do not have, but because I love to go to the stadiums. I am willing to sacrifice and pay the price for it."

Leila and I agree to meet on a crossroads, at night, outside a metro station in northern Tehran. I don't know what she looks like or what her real name is. Like Sara, she fears revealing her true identity. All I know is the model of her car. It takes me half an hour and several awkward misunderstandings with other drivers until I find her, parked around the corner.

Protest is dangerous work in Iran, but activists work within whatever space they can find. Leila runs an anonymous Twitter account, @openstadiums, which has for the past five years been at the forefront of highlighting the absurdities of the stadium ban. But she had campaigned against the ban long before. In fact, as we drive to find a quiet restaurant nearby, we discover we were just a few metres away from meeting in 2006: Her first proper protest was the Iran-Costa Rica friendly at the Azadi that year. "Me and two other guys, and groups of fans, we went there and demonstrated!" she says. It was the same game where I had seen women protesting outside. She shows me pictures of that protest, of their banners and tickets I had seen from the inside of my car.

The protest, it turns out, didn't last much longer. The police, she says, put them all on a bus and dumped them in the middle of nowhere. When one enterprising woman procured a minibus to take them back to the stadium, they were threatened with arrest, their cardboard placards were ripped up and they were told to leave.

A few months later, in the final warm-up match before the 2006 finals, against Bosnia and Herzegovina, they learned from their mistakes. This time they wrote their slogans on their headscarves, knowing they would be untouchable. "It says, 'I want half of my share of Azadi,'" she explains. Azadi translates as "freedom" in Farsi. She scrolls through her phone and her pictures from that time. The white headscarves with the red slogans; the Costa Rica game; a picture of a soldier in fatigues aiming a kick at one woman protester.

Females fans have recently been allowed into games in Saudi Arabia
Females fans have recently been allowed into games in Saudi ArabiaFAYEZ NURELDINE/Getty Images

The police at the Bosnia game had been particularly aggressive. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had announced an end to the ban, but he was swiftly smacked down by the supreme leader, who said this would not happen. This meant any protest wasn't just against the political regime—it was also against the expressed wish of Iran's highest religious authority, a red line that should never be crossed. "To them [the police] we went to the game against the will of the supreme leader. They were really harsh," says Lelia. She claims the response was so aggressive that afterwards the women decided it was too dangerous. "It's not worth the beatings and prison," she says.

Most activism went dark after the crackdown that followed the failed Green Revolution in 2009. It wasn't until November 2013, with Rouhani now in power and with FIFA president Sepp Blatter scheduled to visit, that Lelia decided to start @openstadiums. "I was completely alone. Tweeting these organisations, keeping my identity secret," she says. "You don't want to be discovered. Sometimes I get really afraid."

The movement grew, but few opportunities presented themselves. The political system in Iran is so complex that change is difficult. After the Saudi Arabian government's decision to lift their ban, Iran is the last major country in the world to still have one. "In Saudi," Leila explains, "one person decides. Here, we have so many people. So many ayatollahs. There is a president and cabinet. And the supreme leader." The best-case scenario, she says, is to let women in step by step. Infantino's visit was a wasted opportunity. "His words go into thin air," she says before she drives me back to the city centre. "Nothing happens."

Four days after the Tehran Derby, Persepolis are back at the Azadi Stadium for the Asian Champions League game against Al Wasl from the United Arab Emirates. This time, there aren't any arrests of women trying to enter the stadium, but the protests and the arrests did have some effect on the players after all. Before the game Persepolis midfielder Kamal Kamyabinia came out in support of lifting the ban. "It would be a very great idea if women are allowed to come the stadium," he told me. "I want the officials to take serious measures to allow women to come to the stadium."

Persepolis win 2-0, but one person isn't there. Carlos Queiroz's backroom staff were here, but Queiroz had decided not to come straight back to Iran from Russia after all. He had, instead, gone to Greece. The next Iran squad was to be announced for two World Cup warm-up games against Tunisia and Algeria, and an important decision had to be made.

April 2018, Graz, Austria

For a man with Queiroz's experience, the Iran job seemed a strange choice. They had failed, chaotically, to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and the country was as politically and economically isolated as ever. But Queiroz had had his problems too. "I still have nightmares when I think about that, what happened to me," he says. We are sitting in a posh spa resort, 45 minutes' drive east of Graz. Iran is due to play a friendly against Algeria in the city in a few days' time.

When I ask how he came to be hired by Iran, Queiroz leans forward to describe the series of unfortunate events that brought him here. Portugal had qualified for South Africa 2010, but Queiroz, who had been Sir Alex Ferguson's No. 2 at Manchester United and then Real Madrid coach, had not gone without criticism. A clash of words with a team from Portugal's anti-doping body just before the 2010 finals effectively ended his tenure. The doping body suspended Queiroz for six months, and he was fired.

Queiroz was appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport when his phone starting ringing from potential new employers, but as soon as they heard about a potential extension of his ban to eight months from CAS, they didn't call back. Iran, however, were a rare supportive voice and said they still wanted Queiroz despite his situation. "When they told me this, I decided they deserve my respect and I should go there," he recalls. Queiroz won his appeal anyway, and Iran got their man.

By the time he arrived in Tehran, Queiroz says, only two of Iran's players were playing in Europe. One was Shojaei, and he had been out injured for a year. And then there was the infrastructure. Iran has been under almost continuous international sanctions since 1979. "We trained with one pitch of 60 metres, one grass pitch that belongs to the oil facility built for the employees to play football. It is a garden, not a football pitch," Queiroz explains. It was also almost impossible to attract any team to come to Iran to play a friendly. "The sanctions have consequences," he says. A new training facility was built next to the Azadi, not quite to Queiroz's specifications, but as close as they could get under sanctions.

The "battles," as Queiroz calls his almost constant disagreements with anyone in a position of power, have seen him resign multiple times only to come back. He's fallen out with almost all the major figures in Iranian football. The poor level of the Iranian league, according to Queiroz, compared to his national team preparations, is a theme he returns to again and again. It's the reason for the majority of his rescinded resignations. But Queiroz has remained while others have fallen.

Queiroz has faced many "battles" as Iran boss
Queiroz has faced many "battles" as Iran bossATTA KENARE/Getty Images

He is now Iran's longest-serving coach in almost 60 years and has managed to weave through the country's complex bureaucratic power structures to get things done. Winning, of course, helps. As Iran neared qualification for Brazil 2014, they had to once again beat South Korea in Korea. The Koreans had complained about the conditions they faced when they played in Iran. It led to a war of words in the media that culminated when South Korea's coach, Choi Kang-hee, told the press he would "defeat Iran no matter what" and that "Coach Queiroz will be watching the Brazil World Cup on TV." Queiroz responded by posting a picture of himself wearing a sad image of Choi pinned to his T-shirt. Iran won 1-0 and South Korea complained that Queiroz made an insulting hand gesture towards the bench after the game.

"I remember that game. We beat them with 10 men," Queiroz says. I ask about the T-shirt. "I cannot deny that one," he replies, laughing. It was, for him, one of the highlights of the Iran job so far.

The 2014 World Cup was tough. "It's really magic, almost a miracle what the boys, the players have been doing for the last seven years," he says. "I never tire to repeat this. The players and the places I've seen in my life, I've never witnessed players that deliver so much to one country and then receive so [little]." Unusually, Queiroz wasn't fired and qualification for Russia was achieved at a canter. At one point they had gone a record 12 games without conceding a goal. Still, when it came to another issue facing the 2018 World Cup squad, a different approach was required.

For the World Cup warm-ups against Tunisia and Algeria, Queiroz had recalled his captain, Shojaei, back into the squad after a seven-month absence. This had not gone down well with conservative factions back in Iran, who wanted him banned for life for playing against an Israeli team. The head of the football federation, Mehdi Taj, was even called to court to explain why Shojaei was picked. "Re-inviting Masoud Shojaei to be present in the national football team—after competing against the Zionist regime—shows that the football federation has not taken serious action on this issue," Mohammad Ali Poormokhtar, a conservative member of Iran's parliament, told the country's official press agency.

As ever, there were different power centres to negotiate. On the one hand, banning players for political reasons could have resulted in the Iranian team's being suspended by FIFA. Elected representatives had their views, as did the clerical establishment. Each had powerful media and social media to drum its point across. "My job was to read the situation, cool it down. Let the dust go down," says Queiroz when I ask how the problem was solved. "I was absolutely in control of my decisions, and I always call with all freedom and authority the players that I want."

Neither has he blamed Shojaei for his absence, explaining how he "cannot escape some duties and obligations" as captain. Queiroz, after all, was standing right next to Shojaei when he made his plea to President Rouhani last year for women to be allowed into the stadiums. "I was there, and as far as you express your opinion with full respect and education, I don't see anything wrong," he adds.

Now it was all about getting the right squad together ahead of Russia 2018. Iran had again been handed perhaps the hardest group of the entire tournament: Morocco, arguably Africa's best team; Spain, who are, well, Spain; and, of course, Queiroz's home country, European champions Portugal. "Iran is in the best situation in this group; we have nothing to lose," he says cheerily. "Let's be honest, if I ask you: Iran is a candidate to win the World Cup? Do you really take it that serious?"

"Well, they could reach the knockout stage..." I offer.

"I'm asking, win the World Cup. With Brazil, with Argentina. Be honest. Be simple," he replies.

"Maybe not," I agree, before adding diplomatically, "but I like the underdog..."

"I'll never accept that you call me underdog!" he snaps back, half in good humour. "This is something I changed in Iran. We are not underdogs! ... Iran cannot win the World Cup. But they can win the Asian Cup. So this is part of one process."

The Liebenauer Stadium (previously named after Arnold Schwarzenegger) is one-quarter filled with a small but noisy group of Iranian and Algerian fans, mostly from their respective Austrian diasporas.

Queiroz has chosen a strong team. After starting in Tunisia, captain Shojaei is on the bench. But Sardar Azmoun, Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Ehsan Hajsafi all start, and all are involved in the action. Early on Azmoun rises to head home the opening goal; Jahanbakhsh provided the cross. In fact, Jahanbakhsh is now Iran's form player. He would end his Dutch Eredivisie campaign with AZ Alkmaar with 21 goals and 12 assists, the first time an Asian player has topped the scoring charts in a major European league.

Hajsafi, the other player who appeared against Maccabi Tel Aviv, cuts a wonderful reverse through ball for Mehdi Taremi, who walks the ball into the net. Shojaei comes on in the second half, running himself into the ground as if making up for lost time. Algeria score later in the half, but Iran easily hold on to win impressively.

Still, Queiroz is not happy. "These two games against Tunisia and Algeria show we are far away," he says to a room of perhaps five Algerian journalists. "The players, local players, are far away from the World Cup," he adds. "It is everything or nothing for us. The players must work and train with me."

What can you change in such a short space of time, I ask him? The World Cup is little over two months away.

"What is important for Iran? The local, domestic league or the World Cup?" he asks rhetorically, but maybe not. "What do you expect against Morocco? A dance? A party? You expect that against Portugal and Spain those games are going to be rock and roll. It will not be opera in the World Cup."

The battles, it seems, are never over, even when you have won.

April 2018, Athens, Greece

This season has been memorable for Masoud Shojaei. The night before I meet him, his team, AEK, win the Greek Superleague for the first time in 24 years thanks to a 2-0 victory against Levadiakos at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, the culmination of a thrilling title race with fellow underdogs PAOK. Shojaei was playing when PAOK owner Ivan Savvidis famously stormed the pitch with a gun on his belt when the two sides met near the end of the season. In a few months, Shojaei will turn 34 years old, just weeks away from what could be a third, and likely last, World Cup finals. But his appearance, once assured, has been put in doubt thanks largely to an unfortunate turn of fate.

Masoud Shojaei's road to Russia has been far from easy
Masoud Shojaei's road to Russia has been far from easyKARIM JAAFAR/Getty Images

Shojaei made his World Cup debut at the 2006 finals in Germany, at 22, in a dead rubber against Angola. He describes it, sitting in a seafront cafe near the port of Piraeus, with almost childlike glee. "In the World Cup, you play the best teams in the world," he says. "How many people live in the world? Seven billion? And each team has 23 players. Seven billion people!" The odds still seem to stagger him.

After the World Cup, he left for UAE club Al-Sharjah before moving on to play in La Liga for Osasuna two years later. He made 100 appearances for Osasuna and spent a season with Las Palmas before leaving Spain for Qatar and then, in 2016, arriving in Greece after signing for Panionios, in Athens. His first season was a revelation, and Panionios reached the second qualification round of the Europa League. Shojaei was signed to a new contract, one of the biggest at the club.

Meanwhile, he had become Carlos Queiroz's captain. He was surprised, given he had never played for Persepolis or Esteghlal. "If you reach the Azadi and the captain is not from Persepolis or Esteghlal, they don't accept it at first," he explains. "But step by step they accepted me more."

The 2-0 victory against Uzbekistan last June that secured qualification for Russia 2018 saw tens of thousands celebrate on the streets. An invitation to meet President Rouhani followed, the reception where Shojaei brought up the issue of the women's stadium ban. "As a football player, we don't play only in the stadium or on the pitch. We have more duties and more responsibilities," he explains as to why he felt it was important to raise the issue with the president. "Every time we go out [of the country] Iranian girls and women can come to the stadium. But in Iran? No? So what is the difference? I was searching for the answer."

Shojaei only decided he was going to bring up the issue of the stadium ban on the morning of the meeting. "I can ask for something more important, to do something for my people as the captain of the national team," he says. He was nervous about the reaction he would get, but he found President Rouhani receptive. "I said to the president the situation," he remembers. "And he was kind. He said, 'We have a plan to do this.'" The response, he says, was overwhelmingly positive.

One of the reasons for Shojaei's popularity, despite having never played for either of the two Tehran giants, is the fact that he has spoken out on important issues like this. "I think this is a quality that's grown as he got more confidence," says Afshin Ghotbi. "You have to be a little bit smart and measure everything you say. As a famous Iranian, you have to almost be an acrobat."

But when he returned to Greece, Panionios drew Maccabi Tel Aviv, and the pressure for him and Ehsan Hajsafi to not play began. The Israeli issue was considered a very firm red line.

Shojaei was the club's biggest star and biggest investment ahead of a potentially lucrative run in the Europa League group stages. "They were not a rich club. A good family club. We were the top contracts in the team," says Shojaei, who understood their predicament. "You bring some players that want to help you and, imagine, the first game away they know that we [Shojaei and Hajsafi] couldn't travel." The club begrudgingly accepted that, even after losing 1-0 in Tel Aviv. But they expected both players to be in the team for the return game in Greece. This too appeared to be problematic in Iran. "I told them, it would be a big problem if I play," Shojaei says. "They were a little bit serious with me."

On the one hand, Shojaei didn't want to let down a club that been kind to him since his arrival in Greece. On the other, there was also the possibility that the Iranian federation might be punished over political interference if he didn't play. He was in an impossible position: ruin his relationship with his club or potentially jeopardise Iran's 2018 World Cup place. He called Queiroz, who tried to help. In the end Shojaei felt he had no choice and played the game. They lost 1-0.

"The next day was hell for me," he remembers. "But also I got some great feedback from the people who supported me." Still, after the Europa League knockout, Shojaei disappeared from the national team (Queiroz said under no pressure from the Iranian federation or government, but rather to protect his captain). And things were not going well with Panionios. "I had lost the national team and I was not in a good way," he says. "To be honest, I was not fit, not in good shape. It was difficult to handle."

But then, suddenly, everything changed. He was signed by league leaders AEK and, just as he was getting back to fitness and playing well, Queiroz flew to Athens to talk the whole thing through. "Who had to make the decision to bring me back, finally? Yes or no? It was the coach," he says. "And then he said yes. He could say no. No more problems for him. No more headaches."

Shojaei still isn't sure whether he will be going to the World Cup. The squad is to be announced in a few weeks' time. But Queiroz had shown faith to bring him this far. "It was not a good ending for me and the national team," says Shojaei. He at least now has a chance of writing a new chapter. When Shojaei pulled on his national team jersey in Tunisia in March, a moment he thought might never come, he took a moment for himself in the bathroom and looked into the mirror, his eyes full of tears. "Thank God," he said to his reflection, before leaving for the pitch. "You have to do your best, even better than before."


Nearly one year after their last meeting, Queiroz, his players and backroom staff once again gather for an audience with the president. As before, the players sit in two rows facing each other in the long, modestly appointed, high-ceilinged room in the office of the presidential administration. President Hassan Rouhani, wearing a white turban, is again sitting on a gold-trimmed chair. As before, the occasion is celebratory, a chance to wish the Iran national team luck before they depart for Russia. "Billions of people will watch your games as the representative of a great country with high culture and ancient history," President Rouhani tells the gathering. Queiroz hands the president a red national team jersey with his name on the back.

In the 11 months since their last visit, everything had changed and nothing had changed at all. Queiroz had announced his provisional 24-man squad for the World Cup, which was much the same as a year ago. After all the controversy, Shojaei is here too. Barring any last-minute injury, he would be going to Russia, as captain of Iran. But Russia would be the final stop for Queiroz. He would later announce he was leaving after the World Cup. But who knows?

Persepolis had, as expected, officially won the Iranian league with a 1-0 victory against Padideh in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Women continued to try to enter Iran's stadiums, and continue to get turned away or arrested. "Everything is getting worse," says Sara, the fan I met who says she was arrested at the Tehran Derby. "I don't see a change in the near future. People are supporting us more, but the government is using more force!"

No progress had been made at the AFC or FIFA either. Infantino did not respond to questions sent to FIFA about the stadium ban, although when he returned to Zurich he said he was "promised" women would be allowed into Iranian stadiums soon. He didn't say who made the promise. There was, at least, one minor but important success. When the Persepolis title-winning party returned to the Azadi for the last game of the Iranian football season, it wasn't just men in the crowd. A picture of five women, dressed in red, wearing fake beards went viral.

Newsweek @Newsweek

Iranian women wear fake beards and wigs to sneak into soccer stadium https://t.co/fpxBNlNVA2 https://t.co/6l1tCQax3Y

Russia, of course, offers a respite. Women who can afford it and can get an all-important visa can freely watch Iran, potentially the biggest dark horse of the tournament. Just don't call them underdogs, in front of Queiroz at least.

Back in Tehran, President Rouhani had a final piece of wisdom to impart to the team before they left the country. "Do not pay much attention to what team you are playing against," he told the squad. "Your willpower is more powerful than any other factor. Try to exercise unity and take advantage of all your capabilities and experiences to bring honour for our country." He was talking about Iran's tough group, but the same could equally be said about Queiroz, Shojaei or the women risking everything to watch the game they love.


Additional reporting and translation by Reza Nazar. The Iranian Ministry of Sport and Youth were contacted for comment by Bleacher Report but did not reply. The Iranian football federation declined an interview request with president Mehdi Taj.