Editor's Notes: The revolutionary power of football

Football's qualities, values and pleasures are not those most prized by Iran's Islamist rulers.

As Israelis were solemnly marking Yom Kippur on Wednesday night, the footballers of France and Switzerland, in their respective qualifying games against Cyprus and Ireland, were sealing our bitter World Cup fate. Our national team, which completed its 10 qualifying games losing none but tying too many, was denied, by the narrowest of margins, the chance even of securing a place via the last-gasp play-off route: We had the same points tally but a poorer goal differential than the Swiss. Missing out on the Germany 2006 World Cup stage is a terrible wasted opportunity: a lost chance not only to focus our own pride but also to convey to the incalculably vast audiences of the globe's most popular game the wonderful reality of our national team, with its harmonious mix of Jewish and Arab players, the latter of whom scored crucial goals in the ill-fated quest for qualification. But as we lick our wounds and lament the defensive lapses and spurned chances, there is still some minor consolation to be had: Holland will be there. And, better still, potentially at least, so will Iran. The inexorable growth of football's appeal beyond the working classes has given rise to a flowering of elegant literature in recent years. If Nick Hornby's autobiographical Arsenal love affair Fever Pitch started the ball rolling in 1992, other writers have since correctly positioned football in its far more significant context: as a sport genuinely capable of remaking domestic and international realities. The very titles of books like Simon Kuper's 1994 Football against the Enemy and Franklin Foer's current US bestseller How Soccer Explains the World might sound ludicrous to the uninitiated. But the contents of these and similar studies underline how profoundly passions can flare over the activities of Twenty-Two Foreigners in Funny Shorts (the title of another classic football tome), and with what radical consequences. Football games notoriously attract hooligans and racist thugs. They can prompt nationalist killings by society's most nefarious elements. A little over a week after he had unfortunately scored an “own goal” that doomed his team against the US in the 1994 World Cup, for instance, Columbia's Andres Escobar was shot dead outside a nightclub in Medellin. They have even been known to trigger military conflict, notably on June 15, 1969, when a simmering land, immigration and border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras exploded into war in the immediate flag-burning, fan-clashing aftermath of El Salvador's victory over Honduras in a World Cup qualifier. I'LL BE rooting for Holland in Germany next year because they seem to play the beautiful game with more flair and simple pleasure than other nations invariably to the detriment of their success. (They threw away the 1974 World Cup final against the clinical Germans because, having taken a 1-0 lead in the second minute, they relaxed and started spraying artful passes across the field rather than sealing victory with a second goal; the Germans won 2-1.) And I'll be rooting for them in appreciation of the well-known pro-Israeli predilections of Amsterdam's Ajax, whose fans bring Israeli flags to games and paint Stars of David on their foreheads; a club which has, as Foer writes in his chapter on “How Soccer explains the Jewish Question,” made “Judaism part of its ethos.” Foer and Kuper ascribe the flourishing of Ajax-ian philo-Semitism in part to the greatest Dutch player ever, Johann Cruyff, captain of that total-footballing 1974 side. Cruyff is not Jewish but, according to the soccer literature, his wife is, she has relatives in Israel, they visit here, and he has been spotted, it is improbably disclosed by Foer, “wearing a yarmulke with his number 14 stitched into it.” There are other “Jewish” teams apart from Ajax. In north London, where I grew up, Tottenham has long been known as the “Yids” or “Yiddos” team never affectionately by opposing supporters, and not always affectionately by its own in part because of the club's proximity to the ultra-Orthodox Stamford Hill neighborhood. And all three of English soccer's top teams of the last few years, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, are actually “Jewish” in a fairly unmistakable sense: their owners or sizeable shareholders (ex-Soviet oligarch Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Arsenal's David Dein and Manchester United's new owner Malcolm Glazer) are all members of the tribe. But Ajax's, and by extension Dutch soccer's, Israeli/Jewish embracing appeal runs deeper. Its roots go back to the early 1900s, to an era of Jewish fans and Jewish players. Its more recent rise is directly paralleled by Foer to Holland's (unfounded) post-World War II delight in its sense of resistance to the Nazis and its (genuine) 1973 war solidarity with Israel. And that soccer-ly identification with Israel has been determinedly reinforced since then even as more accurate historians have demonstrated that the Dutch war record was anything but stellar, with a greater proportion of Jews from Holland killed by the Nazis than those of any other nation. Another eloquent football writer, David Winner (who, like Kuper, is Jewish), wrote an entire book, Brilliant Orange, explaining Dutch football, or, more accurately, explaining Holland's history, culture and temperament through its football. Winner wonders whether “Ajax fans' strange adopted 'Jewishness'” now represents an “unconscious act of post-Holocaust solidarity with the city's murdered, missing Jews. I like to think so,” Winner writes. “I find it affectionate and warm, kind almost.” I WON'T be rooting for Iran. It can reasonably be argued that the international community should not tolerate the presence at a global tournament of one nation avowedly dedicated, not to the sporting elimination, but to the physical annihilation, of another. It can reasonably be argued that Iran's participation in Germany might usefully be conditioned on a halt to its nuclear program, or a widespread improvement of its human rights record, or even a specific, World Cup-related demand that it rescind its ban on women attending its domestic football matches. But I'm not sorry, nonetheless, that its team made it safely through from its Asia qualifying group along with Japan and at the expense of fellow “Axis of Evil” power North Korea. Former president Muhammad Khatemi may have savvily co-opted some of his country's top football players to his successful campaign in 1997, but the fact is that soccer's passions and its global spread are anathema to the clerics of Teheran, and to Islamic extremists everywhere else for that matter. Game after qualifying game ahead of this and previous World Cups has been the focus of street protests against the ayatollahs' regime, including the burning of portraits of Iran's supreme spiritual leader Ali Khamenei. After last March's match against Japan in Teheran, thousands of women barred from the Azadi stadium gathered outside to chant anti-regime slogans, and riot squads clashed for hours with these and other protesters who threw firecrackers and disfigured portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini. Reports from Teheran indicated that at least five people were killed and dozens injured. There were clashes elsewhere in Iran that day too. Some reports said several female protesters were beaten to death in other cities as they took off their veils, and that some of those women arrested were lashed for their “un-Islamic behavior” before being released. All of this is prominently reported on dissident Web sites dedicated to promoting regime change in Teheran. Too conscious of, and intimidated by, soccer's appeal to forbid the screening of World Cup games, the Iranian media controllers have in the past tried to at least minimize the pernicious Western influence that comes with such exposure. As Foer writes, they have resorted to acts as absurd as blanking out advertising hoardings for the likes of Playstation and Doritos in the footage beamed home from stadiums overseas, and even substituting “fake” fans. He notes that “during the 1998 World Cup,” for which Iran also qualified, “the Iranian government lived in dread of its exiled opponents,” in particular the “People's Mujahideen” organization, which sent members to games to sing slogans against the regime and carry anti-mullah signs. “To avoid transmitting their embarrassingly subversive messages, Iranian television didn't shoot any footage of the actual crowd. Instead, it edited in stock images, and not terribly convincing ones. The television crowds were bundled in heavy winter coats, hardly attire suited to France in June.” In the run-up to next year's World Cup, the regime has now banned its national team players from sporting “ponytails, hair-bands and sculpted beards” perceived symbols of Western degradation evidently deemed threatening. Players flouting the ban have been told they'll be kicked out of the team. Several members play for German clubs forward Vahid Hashemian hurriedly invented a bad back to stay away from Bayern Munich's visit to Israel last year and evidently picked up their intolerable hairdressing sense from European colleagues. Quite how Iranian TV will manage to censor out opposing team players' hairdos goal-shy French striker Djibril Cisse's multi-hued close crop, for instance, or fashion icon David Beckham's every-changing coiffure must be giving the programmers sleepless nights now. Iran's clerics, incidentally, pale in their football phobia when compared to some in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, recent reports of Saudi fatwas banning soccer or restricting it except in preparation for jihad are so unspeakably ridiculous that it's hard to believe they are not hoaxes. But they are anything but a laughing matter. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, Islamic extremists have been invoking the fatwas to persuade Saudi youngsters to quit their teams and head off instead to carry out suicide bombings and other acts of jihad in Iraq. One of these fatwas, cited by MEMRI quoting the Saudi daily Al-Watan, was issued by Sheikh Abdallah al-Nadji and heavily criticized by other Saudi Muslim authorities. It includes prohibitions on pretty much everything the traditional games of 45 minutes per half, 11 players per side, “colorful pants and numbered jerseys,” terminology such as “penalty kick” and “goal,” and all those other foul practices “used by the non-believers, the Jews, the Christians, and especially the vile America.” The sheikh's Point 13 takes the cake, I think: “If one of you inserts the ball between the posts and then starts to run so that his companions will run after him and hug him, like the players in America and France do, you should spit in his face, punish him, and reprimand him, for what do joy, hugging, and kissing have to do with sports?” FRANZ BECKENBAUER, Germany's 1974 World Cup-winning captain who is now the head of the host-nation's 2006 organizing committee, visited Iran last week on a goodwill mission. Always an astute observer of the game, Beckenbauer predicts that Iran could surprise some of the soccer establishment and make progress in the tournament, possibly reaching the last 16. The nation exploded in celebration in June when Iran defeated Bahrain to claim its World Cup birth. (In a landmark achievement, 100 women had managed to force their way into the game to watch among the 80,000 male fans, overcoming police opposition and chanting “freedom is my right, Iran is my country.”) Reuters reported that “hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets” after the 1-0 win, that “young men and women danced together… and some women briefly took off their headscarves.” Dramatic progress in the tournament itself would plainly prompt further delighted patriotic fervor. But does that equate with fervor for the mullah's regime? I rather doubt it. For its players and its supporters, football is about many things. On the pitch, it is about freedom and possibility, with individual creativity and non-conformity cherished and handsomely rewarded. In the stands and in the living rooms, it is about delight in youthful passion, athleticism and artistry, about sex appeal, about fleeting euphoria and mass celebration thoroughly mortal in their inspiration. These are not the qualities, values and pleasures most prized by Iran's Islamist rulers. Kuper argues in his book that nationalist fervor focused on the soccer teams of the various Soviet republics when they competed in the USSR's premier league was a significant factor in the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union. I'm not suggesting that anything remotely similar could happen in Iran if the football team scores big in Germany. But I am rethinking my instinctual desire to heartily wish the Iranians a speedy exit from the tournament. In fact, if we could be confident it would send the Iranian masses rushing into the streets to rip off their veils, burn Khomeini posters and more, and since Israel isn't now in with a World Cup chance anyhow, maybe we should be hoping they'll win the thing.