x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Iran World Cup ban can’t keep football-mad fans away

The match, against Nigeria, ended in a goalless draw leading to small celebrations in Iran’s streets, where some fans handed out sweets and others honked their car horns.

Fans watch Monday's World Cup match between Iran and Nigeria in a restaurant in northern Tehran. Yalda Moaiery for The National
Fans watch Monday's World Cup match between Iran and Nigeria in a restaurant in northern Tehran. Yalda Moaiery for The National

TEHRAN // A police ban on Tehran’s restaurants and coffee shops showing World Cup games is being ignored by a handful of cafes and diehard fans.

At a fast food restaurant in the Jaam-e-Jam food court in north Tehran, 23-year-old university student Mortez gathered with friends to watch Iran’s first match on Sunday.

The match might have kicked off just before midnight, but the ban, announced just two days before the World Cup began, did not prevent more than a 100 fans from packing the restaurant to watch the game together.

“We know we won’t win the game, but at least we do not want our team to lose it,” said Morteza. “I do not think they [police] will let us celebrate in the street this year, but we will do it,” he said, equipped for festivities with an Iranian flag and vuvuzela.

He was right. The match, against Nigeria, ended in a goalless draw. Despite this, there were small celebrations in the streets, with fans handing out sweets and others honking their car horns loudly.

“This is nothing compared with last year’s celebration. My children danced for hours in the streets,” said Ahmad, 48, referring to Iran’s victory over South Korea in July to qualify for the tournament.

Like most people interviewed, the father of two teenagers asked to be identified only by one name

Honking non-stop on Tehran’s longest street, Valiasr, Ahmad said he hoped the capital’s streets would at least come alive if Iran, the only Middle Eastern team in the World Cup, beat Bosnia and Herzegovina in its last group game later this month.

The national side, known locally as Team Melli, suffered from a lack of resources and insufficient practice time ahead of the World Cup, dampening expectations of any success. Facing Argentina and Bosnia next, few fans believe the team can progress beyond the group stage.

Yet, this does not stop football-loving Iranians from wanting to watch their team. Many universities and schools even rescheduled exams so that students could cheer on Team Melli.

This makes the police restrictions, communicated directly to restaurant and cinema owners, all the more confusing.

“We told our members not to turn on their TVs when World Cup matches are being broadcast or to make sure TVs are set to a different channel,” said Eskandar Azmodeh, the head of Tehran’s Union of Cafe Owners.

“It is possible that owners could lose their licences if any problems arise in their cafes while showing the games.”

Iranian state media reported that police text messages to restaurant owners said they had to close by midnight as usual.

Cinemas were told they would not be allowed to screen matches to mixed-gender audiences.

Police would have let them hold separate screenings for men and women but “due to the security issue we have given up showing the 2014 games”, said the head of the Iranian Cinema Owners Association, Mohammad Ghasem Ashrafi.

Watching football in cinemas became popular during the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.

“They make everything about boys and girls,” said Parvin, 56, a retired chemistry teacher. “I used to go to the cinema four years ago to watch the World Cup with my daughter and son. I saw so many other parents there too.”

The new restrictions mean most Iranians will have to watch the World Cup, shown free on state TV, at home. Viewing the matches outdoors in public parks was also popular, but this now appears to be out of favour as authorities have not set up any facilities for it this time.

Although most social activities tale place at home, cafes and restaurants are among the few places where Iranians can gather in public, and many had looked forward to watching the World Cup matches there.

Some establishments responded to the police ban by texting schedules for screenings of the games to fans. Others decorated their interiors in support of their favourite team. Along with Team Melli, Spain, Italy, and Brazil are popular in Iran.

“The TV shows footage from Brazil with people sitting in streets outside their houses watching football. So, why is it impossible for us to watch it in cafes? It is simple fun for everybody,” Majid, 28, a coffee shop owner in western Tehran.

Despite efforts by authorities, fans reported being able to watch the Iran-Nigeria match at a handful of restaurants and coffee shops in Tehran.

A union representing restaurant owners advised members that they could risk screening the games as long as they controlled the crowd.

“It was not easy, but we managed to keep our cafe open to our customers,” said Vahid, 32, manager of a coffee shop in the Jaam-e-Jam food court. Vahid said he had secured tacit approval to screen the game, admitting to have special connections.

“We went through different offices to get the permission to stay open after midnight just for Iran’s three games,” he said.

“Watching football is not a crime whether you watch it in street, park, cafe or metro. I do not think police arrest anybody for that, they should just trust us,” said Ramtin, 31, who works in a computer shop in Tehran.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae