I wish I was in Tehran tonight with our Socceroos

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    Tehran, in all its glory (Image: Wikipedia Commons)

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    Tonight the Socceroos play Iraq in the next chapter of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Iraq can’t play it’s home games in Iraq because… well, just pick whatever geopolitical reason that suits you.

    Tonight’s game is in Tehran in Iran; a city that has virtually stood still since 1979 and spent the most of the 1980s and 1990s at war with Iraq.

    Tonight’s game is a vital one for both teams chances of qualifying but it also takes us back to the scene of Australia’s role in Iranian history.

    Iranians have a great affinity with Australian football. I know this because they kept telling me.

    In 2012, my wife and I went on an amazing trip around Iran. I usually travelling with my very discreet, navy blue Socceroos cap. It has several great travel features but one of most important is that it marks me as not American. Very important when travelling, well pretty much anyway. Most people do ask “What the hell is a Socceroo?” and my wife never really understood why I kept that cap.

    Obviously it made sense during the 2010 World Cup but why was I wearing in two years later?

    Tomas Rogic of the Socceroos takes a victory lap with his team mates. (Photo: Paul Barkley/LookPro)

    Other travel paraphernalia that were charming in a World Cup environment were not so much in later years. But Iran was different. Everyone knew we were Australians and knew that we loved football as much as they did. They knew who the Socceroos were.

    “Hello. You’re Australian? 2-2,” was the common greeting. It took my wife awhile to realise “2-2” wasn’t a Persian greeting but in fact reference to the 1998 World Cup qualifying series.

    For Australians, the qualifying matches against Iran were yet just another in our long history of World Cup heartache.

    In 1997, English coach Terry Venables took over and we undefeated for the entire year. We won a mini tournament earlier in the year against Norway, South Korean and New Zealand, romped through Oceanic qualifying and beat Macedonia, Hungary and Tunisia in other friendlies.

    As always, Oceania didn’t get an automatic spot so this time about to play off against the 4th best Asian team. We had our best preparation in a long time and we were to face Iran to become the last team to qualify for France ’98.

    The first game was in Tehran at the Azadi Stadium in front of 120,000 Iranian men (no women allowed). This was one of the biggest crowds for a World Cup qualifier ever. Australia started Harry Kewell in up front in just his fourth game for Australia and he scored a vital, early away goal. Iran scored just before half time and the match finished 1-1 but definitely in Australia’s favour.

    We then showed up to the MCG full of confidence – an unbeaten year, a team on fire and an away goal in the bag. We were almost there. What could go wrong?

    We were up 1-0 at half time (thanks again to Harry) with seven other missed shots. Iraq played hard all night.

    But what could go wrong? I had stuffed up my shifts at work and was stuck watching this game on fuzzy black and white reception. (Here I should say I will be at the very least grateful for FIFA insistence that one team plays in a dark colour and one in a light colour so that the majority of the world who watches football on black and white TVs can tell the difference).

    I arranged my break for the first half and then took every task I could that would be get me into the break room. We then scored in the 48th minute. Surely we were almost there? But no. The Socceroo curse struck again.

    The world’s biggest dickhead, professional pest Peter Hoare, run onto the field during our goal celebrations and tore the Iraqi’s goal netting down. Play was stopped for what seemed like an entirety while the net was fixed.

    Something happened to both sets of players. We continued to miss open goals but Iran needed two goals to go through on the away goals rule. Iran, as the world knows, somehow got those two goals and went through to the World Cup.

    Massive celebrations for them, heartache for us. We would get to do this all other again four years later against Uruguay.

    The role of sport in society can sometimes be overplayed. But there are moments that at the time seem important and even historic, but have longer lasting ramifications. The 1960/61 West Indian Cricket tour was the beginning of the end for the White Australia policy. Nicky Winmar vs Collingwood in 1993. The booing of Adam Goodes. And I’m pretty certain that the inaugural AFLW season will have play a significant role in gender equity in the near future.

    Iran qualifying for the World Cup was another one of those events. When the Socceroos qualifying in 2006, it was undoubtedly a joyous event, a “where were you moment.” But it just made feel good.

    For Iran in 1997, feeling good was something different. For mullah’s in Iran all hell broke lose when the final whistle blew. Celebrations broke out in the street with dancing, drinking and western music – all banned since 1979. To make matters worse, women were joining in violating the 1987 ban of women being fans in public.

    A public welcoming of the players was in order but the team was instructed to delay their arrival back into Iran while things cooled down. However, thousands of women showed up at Azadi stadium. The police let some in an attempt to calm things down but more than 2000 other women broke the barriers to join the celebrations in the stadium. This was the moment when things changed.

    Iran is a delight for historians, anthropologists, demographers and political scientists. Time virtually stood still after the 1979 revolution. Tehran is a very fashionable place but while we in the west have retro’d back and forth to the 70’s, they are still wearing the same clothing styles and listening to the latest releases by KC and the Sunshine Band. Just far cooler than us.

    Iran has a relatively high literacy rate, but most importantly it’s young. Very young. Half the country is aged 35 or under. Most are too young to remember the events of 20 years ago. But they’ve grown up with those stories. That’s why every Iranian we met was adamant that despite the crushing of the Green revolution, change was coming.

    That’s why I could have an entire conversation with a taxi driver driving 120km through the desert with the only English words were ‘2-2’.