When the United States and Iran met at the 1998 World Cup, President Bill Clinton publicly addressed the nation expressing his hope that it could lead to better relations between the two countries.
It was one of the few times a USA head of state has paid any attention to the world game but in Iran, the president getting involved is a matter of course. No surprise then that America, which can’t match the football passion of Iran, is now way ahead in terms of football development.
"The country is still a giant of Asian football but one that is hanging to the top tier by its fingertips while trying to wave off persistent mosquitoes eager to gorge"
Just last October, Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited the national team during its training camp for a vital World Cup qualifier against South Korea.
This time, he actually did not join in training but still had something to say. “If you think that you are only good enough for Asia, then that is what you will be and will remain,” he said.
“It is my firm opinion that Iran belongs to the world class elite as we have the talents and skills to be there.”
The country is still a giant of Asian football but one that is hanging to the top tier by its fingertips while trying to wave off persistent mosquitoes eager to gorge.
The pre-match visits are not the problem; rather it is people hungry for influence who involve themselves in the oh-so-popular game that ensure that its long-term needs, such as investment in grassroots development of young players and the modernisation of the clubs and the league’s operating system, are ignored.
The football weapon
It’s all about power and popularity in the here and now.
Afshin Ghotbi was head coach of the national team from 2009 to 2011 experienced first-hand just how Iranian football operates as he explained to Al Jazeera English.
"My experience as the national team manager of Iran was that football plays a major role in the political, social and even economic direction that the nation takes and the people who decide the direction of the country are constantly using the game for their political agenda," said Ghotbi now coach of Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan.
"There are pluses and minuses to it all. The government’s financial resources support the game but it becomes politically manipulated. It becomes too dependent on the political system and the money and it starts operating as a political business."
Wikileaks produced a diplomatic cable from Tehran that allegedly read: “[Ahmadinejad] has staked a great deal of political capital in Iranian soccer... in an effort to capitalise on soccer's popularity with constituents."President Ahmadinejad is by no means the first world leader to try and use a nation’s love for its favourite sport for his own ends but he does it much more than most - anything to help him in an ongoing power struggle with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
In 2006, one of his vice-presidents was also head of the now defunct Iranian Physical Education Organisation and fired the president of the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) after a dismal World Cup and tried to take the position for himself. Only the intervention of FIFA eventually put a stop to it all.
| Former Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi says football and politics operate too closely [AP]
Sometimes Ahmadinejad doesn’t even delegate. He had his say in the hiring of Ali Daei as national team coach in 2008, his firing in 2009 and helped pave the way for the recall of star player Ali Karimi to the national team in 2008.
Karimi didn’t repay the favour and was one of half a dozen members of the starting eleven that, in a vital 2010 World Cup qualifier in South Korea in June 2009, donned green wristbands, the colour of the defeated opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and subsequently adopted by protesters in Tehran who believed that the June election had been rigged.
Any lesson that mixing football with politics was dangerous went unnoticed or ignored. In 2012, Ahmadinejad was keen to have his own man become the president of the IFF in an upcoming election that was memorable for how little of it was actually about football.
Few expected the incumbent Ali Kafashian to win against two heavyweight rival candidates. One was the president’s man and the other was backed by the Revolutionary Guards. These allies of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have been involved in Iranian club football for over a decade (the vast majority of clubs are owned directly or indirectly by the state).
In the end, the two rival factions cancelled each other out as Kafashian who, with little to lose, campaigned as an independent alternative won enough support from those weary of the politics.
In the end, politics lost but it doesn’t mean football won.
The short-term needs of those in power or those seeking power trump the long-term needs of football every time. While it is a depressing thought for fans that it is their very passion for the game that attracts the politicians, it also, one day surely, must lead to a brighter future for the beautiful game.
Click here to watch Al Jazeera's interview with former Iran player Hassan Roshan about the state of Iranian football.