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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ex-Real Madrid Coach Queiroz May Tread in Iranian Political Minefield

Iran hopes to this week sign Portuguese trainer Carlos Queiroz as its national soccer coach following the Islamic republic’s disappointing performance in last month’s Asian Cup in Qatar.

Queiroz would succeed Afshin Ghotbi who left for Japanese club Shimizu S-Pulse calling for a divorce of soccer and politics in Iran.

Iranian Football Federation (FFI) executive Gholam-Reza Behravan told Iran’s Mehr news agency said signature of Queiroz’s contract was pending the Portuguese coach’s exploring what life in the Islamic republic, which applies Sharia law that bans alcohol and segregates men and women, is like.

Iran last month barred women, who were already banned from soccer matches in stadiums, from watching games broadcast in movie houses.

“There have constantly been poisoning reports about Iran and we gave him time to see for himself in what country he is supposed to live for the next three years,” Mehr quoted Torabian as saying.

Queiroz, who is currently in Tehran, formerly coached Portugal and South Africa as well as Real Madrid.

In comments to Iranian media, Queiroz appeared more cautious about how far negotiations with the Iranian federation had progressed.

'We still have to wait and see because I must hear what expectations the FFI officials have from me and they have to listen to my expectations as well,' Queiroz was quoted as saying.

By accepting the Iranian offer, Queiroz may well find that he will be treading on a political minefield.

Iran’s ability to make it to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil is an important political yardstick for controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

Ghotbi before leaving Iran appeared to be targeting Ahmedinejad, who reportedly personally approved his appointment, as well as members of the national team with his call that soccer be shielded from politics.

"The national team belongs to the people and from the head coach and all the way to the ball boy, nobody should use it as a vehicle to express their political views,"Ghotbi said.

Iran two years ago lost its last qualifier against South Korea in a match that was mired by some Iranian players entering the pitch with green wristbands in support of mass protests against the disputed re-election of Ahmedinejad and Iranian fans shouting slogans against their government during the match in Seoul.

In effect, Ghotbi’s appeal applies to soccer as an institution not just in Iran but across the Middle East and North Africa. Politics permeates the game in Iran and elsewhere in the region at all levels.

Iranian clubs like many of those in for example Egypt are government controlled, more often than not through ownership by state-run companies. Representatives of Iran’s Ministry of Youth and Sports sit on club boards while the Revolutionary Guards over the past two years have successfully increased their influence on the game.

Government officials fear the power of soccer in creating alternative public spaces where Iranians can vent pent-up anger and frustration with their leaders.

That concern has been reinforced by past support for opposition figures by soccer personalities and institutions, including the managing board of Zob Ahan Football Club and a former coach of Persepolis FC, Asia’s most popular club.

Iranian soccer analysts believe that matches in the Tehran derby between Persepolis and FC Taj have ended in draws over the last six years as a result of government match fixing.

The analysts say the fixing is designed to prevent the often violent derby from escalating into anti-government protests.

Iran’s successful World Cup qualifiers in 1997 and 2005 resulted in massive celebrations in the streets of Tehran, marked by public intoxication, dancing, and women removing their hijabs; the elimination of Iran from the 2001 World Cup qualifiers led to rioting.

Tractor Sazi FC, the storied club in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan, which is owned by Iran Tractor Manufacturing Co. (ITMCO), has become a flashpoint of the region’s identity politics.

“Wherever Tractor goes, fans of the opposing club chant insulting slogans. They imitate the sound of donkeys, because Azerbaijanis are historically derided as stupid and stubborn. I remember incidents going back to the time that I was a teenager,” says a long-standing observer of Iranian soccer.

A 2009 cable from the US embassy in Tehran disclosed by Wikileaks describes how Ahmedinejad has sought with limited success to associate himself with Iran’s national team in a bid to polish his tarnished image and curry popular favour.

The Iranian president went as far as in 2006 lifting the ban on women watching soccer matches in Iranian stadia, but in a rare public disagreement was overruled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Ahmedinejad has been hands-on in the management of the Iranian team. The US cable reports that he pressured the Iranian football federation to lift its 2008 suspension of star Ali Karimi so that he could play in 2010 World Cup qualifiers, engineered the 2009 firing of Ali Daei as coach, ensured that Daei’s successor Mohamed Mayeli-Kohan lasted all of two weeks in the job and ultimately was succeeded by Ghotbi.

Ahmedinejad has justified his interference telling Iranian journalists that “unfortunately, this sport has been afflicted with some very bad issues. I must intervene personally to push aside these destructive issues.”

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