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Political football

October 22, 2001

by Guy Dinmore in Tehran

Armed with two tons of pastries, music and loudspeakers, police in Tehran were ready on Sunday night to pacify hundreds of thousands of young people celebrating Iran’s qualification for next year’s World Cup football finals after an easy win over tiny Bahrain. But instead of tea and biscuits, tear-gas and batons were on the menu as the minnows of Bahrain spoiled the script and thrashed Iran 3-1.

By mid-afternoon on Monday, there was still no official word on the extent of damage or numbers of arrests, after anguished Iranians took to the streets in anger.

The state media maintained a blackout on the night’s events and city authorities refused to speak. But by piecing together eye-witness accounts, it became clear that mayhem had erupted in several areas across the city. Youths smashed windows of state banks and government buildings and set vehicles on fire. In running skirmishes, police dispersed them and made many arrests, backed as usual in times of crisis by Basij Islamist militiamen wielding batons. Iran being a cauldron of conspiracy theories, the word everywhere was the same: “It was a political game”.

People were convinced the Iranian regime had either bribed or put pressure on the national team to lose the match, in order to prevent an outpouring of street celebrations that could destabilise the Islamic republic. A torrid game by goalkeeper Ebrahim Mirzapour only reinforced such suspicions.

The mob shouted anti-regime slogans, a few even daring to chant “Death to the Mullahs”. Young women, usually in cars, tore off their headscarves and waved them provocatively in the face of police. Middle-aged women held toddlers in their arms, lining the streets and bickering with the police when told to move on.

“We are sad people, we Iranians,” one young man told me, dashing up a street being chased by baton-wielding militiamen who stopped to beat up a youth with a pony-tail. “We come out to the streets after losing at football. We are here to change the government,” he said, breathlessly. “This is a revolution.”

It didn’t look like one, in truth. The young man’s companions did not have the stomach for a real fight and fled as soon as security forces started charging. But there was anxiety written all over the faces of the police, too. Nobody seemed quite sure where the events were leading.

More than 60 per cent of Iranians are under the age of 25, unemployment is high and tempers have been heated following a spate of public floggings and a clampdown on behaviour considered as un-Islamic – a definition that includes a young couple, unmarried, sharing a coffee in a cafe.

For more than a week, the city of 10m people had been anticipating trouble on Sunday night, win or lose. Nine days earlier Iran had beaten Iraq 2-1 at home to go top of their group, just one point ahead of arch-rivals Saudi Arabia. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of youngsters had swamped the streets to celebrate. Partying turned into rioting and 400 were arrested.

Mohammad Khatami, the pro-reform president who is generally popular with Iran’s youth, appealed for calm before the Bahrain match. High spirits were fine, he said, but he urged Iranians to beware of “ill-wishers and evil-doers who want to abuse such situations”. To channel emotions, police were told to distribute cakes and organise celebrations in designated squares.

The evil-doers referred to by Mr Khatami are exiled opposition groups, including monarchists, who had been using the internet to incite Iranians to turn the night into an anti-government protest. Early on Monday, they claimed police had shot dead two people and that some banks had been torched.

Nor is the World Cup saga over yet. Iran still has a chance to qualify for the finals by playing the United Arab Emirates, runners-up in the other Asian group. The winners of that encounter then take on Ireland.

But in a late twist, Iran’s football authorities said they would dispute the result of the match played in Bahrain, accusing their rivals of disguising the identity of at least one player, who according to Iran, was ineligible. Fifa, the world football authority, was due to make a statement later on Monday, Iran’s state television reported.

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