Iran v. South Korea: World Cup Qualifying Match is Full of Politics

Basketball diplomacy, ping-pong diplomacy, and soccer diplomacy have seen sport at the forefront of global politics time and time again. With critical events approaching in both the political and sports arenas, the coming period can expect to see this relationship especially ripe in Iran.

As Iran took to the polls in this weekend's election, the national soccer team is bracing themselves for a match against South Korea that will determine whether they are competing in the World Cup next year. Both events will be equally decisive for the future of sport in the country.

The politics-sports nexus in Iran has rich history and today’s election could mark a turning point in its development. Issues of management, which have in recent times fallen to the military, lie at heart of this relationship, underlined by political motivations.

The potential for political expression in the sporting world has meant that clubs are carefully monitored and that management and control are highly linked to the government. The World Cup qualifier against South Korea in 2009 saw the ban of four players – Ali Karimi, Mehdi Madavikia, Hosein Ka’abi and Vahid Hashemian – from the soccer pitch for sporting green wristbands seen as a sign of protest against the last election. Tuesday's same qualifying match against South Korea, once again just days after the presidential election, the memory of the previous match reappears. 

The direction that each of the presidential candidates is likely to take with regard to the managements of sports teams is uncertain. However, Ali-Akbar Velayati, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, has suggested a movement away from the government control that we see today. In the past, government involvement has been direct at times, with Ahmadinejad reportedly appearing at the soccer match against Lebanon earlier this week, which saw a 4-0 victory to Iran.

Imminent sporting events, particularly the World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, will be crucial to keep an eye on in light of the outcome of the presidential elections later today. With the 2009 match fresh in the minds of both of the teams and at a time of heightened political transition, sports continue to be as important as ever. 

Whether the events of today and the coming week will reflect those of 2009, which “politicized the entire [World Cup] qualification campaign” according to Afshin Ghotbi, the national team coach, remains to be seen. Instead, maybe it is worth casting our minds back to the 1998 World Cup match between Iran and the US, where soccer surpassed politics and the match was complete with exchanges of flowers and pennants.