It’s difficult to express in words what June 6th, 2018 meant to me. I’m no soccer fan, I never have been. I cannot explain the technical nature of what happened, I cannot describe in any compelling fashion how the play was made, nor can I comment in-depth on the players and their backstories. I cannot pretend to know much about the particularities of each team. But I know how that penalty kick against Portugal felt, for me and for the people of Iran. It was surreal.
The road that led here was a tough one. Even in the world of soccer, being an Iran fan feels much like being a social outcast. It’s difficult rooting for a team associated with the foremost global antagonist, a permanent fixture of the “axis of evil” in the eyes of the western world. Iran’s relationship with the west has always been in flux, as relations at times improve and at other times regress. Through sanctions and rhetoric, Iran’s relationship with the west was deteriorated and complicated, and this was felt by all Iranians at home and throughout the diaspora. Even now at the World Cup in 2018, the intensity of Iran’s political reality was felt by every fan and player looking to escape into the realm of sports.
And yet the team pressed on, forging their way into a pod that many considered to be one of the most formidable in the tournament.
The first game Iran played was short of spectacular. Taking on Morocco, Iran was able to pull out a win, but it was ugly. What was initially celebrated as a spectacular win was shortly thereafter repudiated by many. Whispers of illegitimacy were heard throughout the competition as a Moroccan defender committed an own goal in the 90th minute, miraculously giving Iran a chance at the next round. And yet, the win wasn’t what it should have been. It wasn’t the revelation we were expecting, and it was barely achieved against the easiest opponent in the division. Yet Iran won, 1-0.
Next up was Spain. The game went as expected. The Spanish team had possession of the ball the vast majority of the time, meticulously deconstructing our defense. I would like to believe we held our own against one of the fiercest teams in the world, that we limited them to just one goal. But the loss still stung. Iran lost, 0-1.
And then lastly Iran faced Portugal. With a win, Iran would advance to the next round. With a loss, the journey would end. Unlike Spain, a balanced and complete threat, Portugal’s success came much from its star power. Millions of fans around the world watched the match, not necessarily to see a balanced effort between two experienced teams, but rather to see him, God in the flesh: Cristiano Ronaldo. As he took the field, it appeared as though his body were chiseled from stone. As the game progressed, I spent more time watching him than I did my own team. He glided down the field effortlessly, weaving his way through the Iranian defenders. And even though it was his teammate who scored the first goal for Portugal, the eyes of the world were on him. And then he stepped up to the penalty line with Portugal already up 1-0, looking to cement the victory. The only thing standing between him and the goal was Alireza Beiranvand, the Iranian goalkeeper who clearly understood the gravity of the situation by the expression he wore on his face. He was tasked with the impossible: to singlehandedly stop Ronald from scoring.
And then the miraculous happens: Beiranvand blocked the shot. As the ball came down from the block, Bieranvand jump on top of it, embracing the ball, eyes shut so as to savor this moment. Ronaldo was shocked. The world stood still, if for only a moment. And Iran fans everywhere realized they could stand head to head with goliath. Later, in the 90th minute of the game, it was Iran’s turn to shoot a penalty. Only this time, Iran scored. And that was that, the game was over. Iran tied Portugal 1-1.
Although Iran did not advance to the next round, it’s worth noting just how triumphant this moment was. To slow down arguably the world’s greatest player, to block his penalty kick and then shortly thereafter make a kick of our own, demonstrated that the Iranian team could roll with the punches. For a moment, the Iranian people felt as though they were equals with one of the soccer world’s best. Football had become a force legitimization. In that moment, Iran and its people were untouchable.