Back in February, I thought months of hard work had come to nothing.
Since last year I had been trying to get a reporting visa into Iran. Team Meli had easily qualified for the World Cup and were, to my mind at least, the best team in Asia. But as ever with Iran, who qualified with ease, football only told half the story.
For the last few games of qualification the real world had impinged on the party. After Iran had qualified, at a reception with President Rouhani, the team’s captain Masoud Shojaei asked him to lift the ban on women entering Iran’s football stadiums. A few months later he was dropped from the team after an outcry by conservative law makers when he played for his Greek team Panionios in a Europa League match against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Iran maintains an unofficial ban against any Iranian sportsmen or women competing against Israelis. In the middle of all this was the team’s combative coach Carlos Queiroz.
So, I wanted to write more about what was going on in Iran, by first going to the Tehran Derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, one of the biggest matches in world football. But with no visa, that seemed impossible. And then, on the morning I was supposed to leave, my visa suddenly arrived. A few hours later I was in Tehran at the beginning of a four month journey that took me to Iran, Greece, Austria and, ultimately, to St Petersburg for Iran’s first game of the 2018 World Cup finals.
The result was this long read for the Bleacher Report. It gives a little background to Iran’s amazing campaign, but also to some of the forces that underpin Iranian society, and the people who are bravely trying to fight against them.