Watching Iran play in the World Cup over the last few weeks, I found myself grappling with a series of contradictory emotions.
As an Iranian-American who was born in the United States, at times I've wished that I could claim another heritage. Like the time in 2007, just months after my graduation from Columbia University, when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke on the campus and denied the holocaust or the existence of gays. Or when I visited the country at age eight, traveling with my mother and four-year-old sister, and we were pulled aside in the Tehran airport and taken into a room where my mother was forced to hand over her American passport. We were stuck in Iran for months, finally rescued by my father who flew to Germany and pulled some strings with the Iranian embassy.
Or throughout my upbringing in the 1980s, when resentment toward Iranians still lingered from the hostage crisis. Though I grew up in a relatively liberal and open-minded neighborhood in the Bay Area, I couldn't help but feel like I was viewed through a negative lens. I couldn't help but feel dread or embarrassment anytime someone asked me, “What kind of name is Najafi?”
There's a reason why Iranians in the U.S., and especially in Los Angeles, where I now live, call themselves “Persian.” It's easier to refer to our ancient roots than own a regime our families moved halfway around the world to avoid.
So why on earth did I scream at the television when Iran made a goal attempt on Nigeria? Why did I obsessively Google the math behind the World Cup and calculate the various scenarios in which Iran could advance to the second round? Why did I feel insane euphoria in the 90th minute of the Argentina game, when Iran, ranked 43rd, was still tied with Argentina, ranked 5th?
The answer has a strange sort of irony: I was actually rooting against Iran in rooting for its soccer team. I was rooting for soccer – a positive, internationally enjoyed event – which like many things in Iran, has been suppressed by the government.
The Iran team has been notoriously deprived of government funding, even as it misses out on international sponsorships because of the regime's nuclear-related sanctions. Because of its small budget, the team lost critical opportunities to practice with other teams. They trained in near obscurity and had to scrape by with so few funds that the coach has already announced he's quitting at the end of this World Cup.
Just having an Iranian team at this event is a small victory against an oppressive regime. It's a victory against a country whose female citizens can't participate in sporting events unless their bodies are fully covered, and whose female citizens can't even watch sports in stadiums in Iran. A country that forbids its citizens from accessing any social media, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. A country that recently arrested and imprisoned a group of six Iranians who made a video of themselves bopping around benignly to Pharell's “Happy” on the grounds of “obscenity.” A country that has no trade relations with the United States and whose banking system is isolated from the rest of the international banking system, and whose consistently combative nature is causing its economy and society to collapse on itself.
When I'm rooting for Iran's team, I'm rooting for a country that I know is better than this. A country whose citizens are already better than this, as we saw in the 2009 election, when millions of Iranians poured into the streets in support of a change of regime during the Green Movement. A country that I know can be great, because Iranians, as a people, are great. Iranians in the U.S. occupy some of the highest percentiles of income and educational degrees. It's no secret that the country wouldn't be floundering if it afforded its citizens just a fraction of the same freedom and opportunities as they have in the U.S.
When I'm cheering for Iran's team, I'm cheering for Iran's opportunity to do something positive on the international stage. To participate for once, rather than to alienate. To be known in the eyes of the world as soccer players, instead of as terrorists or a nuclear bomb threat.
Yet as I watched Iran compete these last few weeks, before the Wednesday loss to Bosnia that ended its tournament play, I couldn't help but hope for something truly irrational. Something I knew was 100 percent impossible, but still I was hoping for it. It was the hope that Iran would win the entire World Cup so that maybe its government would wake up and believe that Iran could be better than this too.
Shirin Najafi is a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @shirinnajafi or contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org