06/20/2014 04:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

World Cup 2014: How 'Team Melli' Helps Us Understand the Complexities of Modern Iran


In group "F" action at the World Cup, Iran and Nigeria played to a scoreless tie. While the game ended in a draw... many Iranians in the crowd are celebrating their own personal victories. To understand modern-day Iran, you don't have to look any further than the stands of the 'Arena de Baixada' in Brazil. There's a strong sense of nationalism mixed with a myriad of political views. As soon the Iranians took the field for their first match of the World Cup, fans fanatically began chanting "Iran, Iran," proudly displaying their country's flag. However instead of one national flag, fans were waving three different versions.

Iran's official flag contains the statement "God is Great." It was adopted after the Islamic revolution in 1979. A second version contains an emblem of the lion and the sun representing the period of imperial reign. The third flag features green, red and white stripes. Some refer to it as the neutral flag, because it has no affiliations with either the Islamic regime or an imperial dynasty.

The political beliefs in the stands at the World Cup, no matter how far apart, seem to coexist for sake of the team. While female soccer fans are banned from attending games at stadiums in Iran, they are making their presence felt in Brazil. Their faces painted with national pride reveal another side of the country that is usually hidden from society. An Iranian couple, with a woman branding the official flag on her head exchanged a kiss with her partner. Of course that would be a dime a dozen during "Kiss Cam" at a Western hockey game, but in this case a statement is made. That photo was spread around the world by way of social media and included the hashtag #WorldCupKiss.

On the field, the players also demonstrate the paradox of modern-day Iran. While there are sanctions imposed by the United States, an American player is playing for the Iranian national team. Steven Beitashour's decision to play for Iran has drawn criticism from many, but has transcended international politics and may even help bridge the gap between the two nations.

As the game gets underway, the announcers comment on the sportsmanship demonstrated by the players, which is a far cry from the image most Westerns have of Iranians. The perception that was formed at the height of the hostage crisis in the late 1970s, is still present today.

The president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, even tweeted a photo of himself watching the game. Breaking from tradition, he was not wearing his usual turban (ammameh) or a typical dark clerical robe (aba). His usual attire was cast aside for a short-sleeve Iranian team jersey. The president was even wearing trackpants.

For Iran, this World Cup has transcended the sport of soccer and has become a forum to express individual political beliefs. So next time you're watching, take a closer look; you may just see a stadium that has become a public arena where political views and a unique brand of nationalism has found expression.