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January 11, 2023

Soccer players versus the IRGC. Who do the people of Iran choose?

By Arash Azizi

Within the sea of propaganda churned out by the Islamic Republic to mark the third anniversary of the killing of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani—one of the regime’s top figures before he was slain via a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020—a twenty-second video stands out. In it, young Iranian children, who seem to be in their pre-teen years, declare their love for Soleimani.

The children take turns announcing that they prefer the slain general to their soccer favorites, like Argentina’s Lionel Messi or Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. A young boy, roughly about eight or nine years of age, even says, “Hajj Qasem is stronger than Batman.”

The video naturally led to disgust by most decent observers. Whatever one thinks of Soleimani, recruiting children—particularly those in their pre-teens—for a video in praise of a military figure can easily be considered a form of child abuse. Not that this is surprising for a regime with a history of using child soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War and even in Syria, and whose ideological manipulation of children begins at kindergarten age.

But the video also attests to the desperation and insecurity of the Iranian regime. To seasoned observers of Iran, the propaganda specialists chose this line of “Soleimani or Messi” precisely because they are aware of their ideological defeat. In other words, they know full well that the average Iranian child is much more likely to care about soccer than the regime’s “martyrs.” In fact, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly complained that young people, including his own grandchildren, know soccer players better than heroes of the regime. Most Iranian youth are also unlikely to have any time for the regime’s stale and aggressive anti-Western animus and are more likely to know trivia facts about Messi and Ronaldo than those about Soleimani and his exploits in Syria, where he defended the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad against a domestic uprising.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the powerful militia that controls much of Iranian economy and politics, and which counted Soleimani as a leading figure, is just one of the regime institutions that spends billions of dollars on cultural products aimed at swaying Iranians. They produce films, plays, billboards, books, articles, and news content that seek to promote Khamenei’s vision of an Islamist culture in which young people hate the United States and Israel and have little time for non-Islamic pop culture. These policies go alongside a vast apparatus of repressive measures that seek to criminalize even the most basic use of Western products. Iranian importers, for instance, have long been told that they are forbidden from importing toys such as “dolls that sing Western songs” or “dolls such as Barbie that have non-Islamic or immoral features.”

Yet, as widespread youth participation in the protests show, these policies have been a clear failure. The average young Iranian is likely attuned to the latest Western television shows and knows how to use circumvention tools to download the latest Western music videos and songs. Despite having one of the largest budgets in the world, the state broadcaster has clearly lost the audience game to the foreign-based Persian language broadcasters, which feature free political debate and uncensored film and television series from around the world.

Soccer, too, has long been viewed as a cosmopolitan pastime that drives millions of Iranians mad with joy. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Khamenei openly says that he is not much of a fan of the sport—something that makes him a rarity amongst Iranians (even his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was known to like playing and watching soccer, although he had also warned about the game being used for “colonial” purposes.)

Unluckily for Khamenei, the long list of those who have come to openly oppose him and the Islamic Republic now includes soccer players that are household names in Iran. Once dubbed the Asian Maradona, former striker Ali Karimi has emerged as one of the best-known opponents of the regime. When the protests broke out in September, the forty-four-year-old was based in Dubai and, thus, had an easier time speaking out against the regime—despite the seizure of his property—on his Instagram account (which has 14.6 million followers) compared to his counterparts inside the country. He has since moved to Germany due to threats of extrajudicial kidnapping, where his meeting with President Frank Walter-Steinmeier lead to much anger in the regime.

From inside the country, the legendary Ali Daei has garnered much support by standing up to the regime and supporting the revolutionary movement. The regime has even targeted his family. When Daei’s wife and daughter tried to leave for Dubai in December 2022, the regime went so far as to dramatically turn back their Tehran-Dubai flight and force it to land on Iran’s Kish Island, where they were taken off the flight and then banned from leaving the country.

For Iranians of my generation, Daei is not merely a soccer legend but a larger-than-life figure deemed exemplary in so many ways. Unlike many soccer players, he not only had formal education but also went to Iran’s top tech university for a degree in engineering and, thus, had an added veneer of respect in a society obsessed with higher education. He also came from a Turkic Azeri family from the border province of Ardebil and spoke Persian with an accent, making him a role model for millions of his fellow Iranians with non-Persian mother tongues. He played for top global clubs such as Bayern Munich when this was still relatively rare for Iranians. And, for many years, he was the world’s top international goal scorer until his record was broken in 2021 by Ronaldo. In short, these are not the enemies a regime wants.

However, regime officials have foolishly attacked Karimi and Daei only to further their own isolation. Speaking to the state broadcaster on January 3, Amir Hossein Haji Nasiri, a member of IRGC’s Quds Force, the unit once led by Soleimani, quipped: “These are not our heroes. God gave him a tall height so whoever lopped the ball, it would hit his head and a goal would be scored… I hope people like him leave the country so that it can be cleansed of them.”

The comments appalled many Iranians. Social media users published videos of many of the 109 goals Daei scored for Iran’s national team to display his legendary skills. Many soccer fans quickly came to his support. Taking to his Instagram page, Iran’s captain, Karim Ansarifard, wrote: “Legend. Honor. Wishing you the best Shariyar,” using a Persian epithet of Daei that roughly translates to ‘prince’.

On his Instagram page, Hadi Aqili, a former national team player who, at six feet (185 cm), is only slightly shorter than Daei, wrote: “Many of us soccer players were tall but none of us could raise Iran’s flag in international tournaments like Ali Daei. He is a patriot and a role model for many of our youth.”

Daei himself calmly took to Instagram to respond to Haji Nasiri: “Leaving is not for someone who has deep roots in this soil.” He also thanked those who stood by his side. The post already has close to four million likes and is Daei’s most liked post ever. It shows a picture of him smiling while standing in the green hills of his native Ardebil province.

The episode shows how wrong the Western media’s convenient narrative about Soleimani being an unparalleled national hero in Iran always was. While many Iranians respect those like Soleimani, who fought in the 1980-1988 war against the invading Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein, they have much less time for Soleimani’s support for Khamenei or for the regime’s military adventures that helped further isolate Iran.

As attacks on Haji Nassiri intensified, his supporters published his pictures with Soleimani and reminded people that he had fought in Syria and Iraq to further the IRGC’s goals. The average Iranian is unlikely to be impressed, especially when compared with the videos of the four goals scored by Daei against South Korea in Iran’s historic 6-2 win during the 1996 Asian Cup. Iranians know who their national heroes are.

Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions.” Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehran.

Further reading

Image: Convention Center, Doha, Qatar - April 1, 2022 Draw assistant Ali Daei draws C1 REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah