Iran’s Political Corruption and Turmoil: How Football Brought it to Light

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Written by Brian Kim and Danny Mammo in 2009.

June 17, 2009: South Korea vs. Iran during the World Cup qualifier ending in a 1-1 draw

More so than the outcome, the most significant part of this game was the message that the Iranian players and fans delivered to the world in a political statement acknowledging their opposition toward the recent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In the stands, fans waved flags and banners condemning Ahmadinejad and supporting a “Free Iran.” Before the game, the Iranian players changed their wardrobe to include green armbands in support of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s political campaign and the Iranian freedom fighters. Although the team was representing Iran on the pitch, the players symbolically stood against the government of Iran in support of their fellow citizens who are plagued by political corruption and suppression.

2009 Presidential Election in Iran

In the summer of 2009, the Iranian state held an election for the presidency. On paper it reads that on June 12th, 2009, the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran for his second term by a landslide of 62%. The results were processed quickly and shocked many voters, who grew skeptical and took to the streets in protest that the election was rigged.

Ahmadinejad is a radical politician who holds negative views against the United States and Israel, and supports the development of Iran’s nuclear project. His main opposition in 2009 was a man by the name of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who was a Reformist and had served as the Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989. Mousavi had been popular when he stepped away from politics 20 years prior, and thus had been considered by many as a serious contender for the presidential seat. Ahmadinejad’s reelection sparked the Green Movement in Iran, which initially symbolized support for Mousavi’s political campaign.

The Aftermath of the Election

Political arrests, media blockage, and censorship of protests consumed Iran after the election. The government attempted to suppress the spread of information about the protests outside the country by limiting social media in Tehran. However, some Iranians still found ways to broadcast videos and blog posts about the antigovernment movement by ways of the Internet and cell phone recordings.

Key Players During and After the Election

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

He was the President of Iran from 2005 to 2013. His second term was won by a landslide in 2009 just like his first term, but the victory itself along with the speed in which results were announced caused mass protest. Many people in Iran and around the world believed that the election had been fixed.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi

He was an architect, a political activist, and the last Prime Minister of Iran from 1981-1989. He was Ahmadinejad’s main opponent in the 2009 election. The color of his campaign was green, which led to the Green Movement. The Associated Press reported at the time that, “protesters …who accuse the government of rigging Iran’s June 12 election in favor of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been wearing green — the color of Mousavi’s campaign — in a show of support for the opposition candidate.”

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

As the second Supreme Leader of Iran, his decisions in all matters were final. He succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic in 1989 after having been the President of Iran from 1981 to 1989. He had often disagreed with Mousavi, who also served as the Prime Minister of Iran during that time period. In 2009, Khamenei supported Ahmadinejad’s reelection.

Neda Soltan

She was a young woman who was shot during anti-government protests in Tehran, Iran following Ahmadinejad’s 2009 reelection. Her death was captured on video by bystanders and rapidly gained the attention of international media outlets such as CNN and Twitter. News of her death further outraged protesters and became a rallying point for those opposed to the election results.

DISCLAIMER: The below video contains graphic content.

The video that captured Neda Soltan’s death.

2009 Iranian World Cup Qualifier

During the summer of 2009, national soccer teams from around the world vied for the 32 positions in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The Iranian national soccer team was no exception. They played a qualifying match against the South Korean team in Seoul, South Korea on June 17, 2009, only five days after the reelection.  The team may have been physically away from the Iranian election and the following domestic instability, but they saw the FIFA World Cup Qualifier as a platform to voice their opinions about recent events in their home country.

Many notable Iranian players such as Ali Karimi and team captain Mehdi Mahdavikia wore green armbands, which symbolized their support for the protests back home. While the players could not physically take part in the demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, they used the FIFA World Cup Qualifier as leverage to focus international attention on the protests. Some agree that it is an act of treason to oppose the government of which one represents, but the Iranian players courageously chose to do just that in the midst of the political controversy. As a consequence, many of the involved Iranian players were forced into retirement.

The players were not the only ones who realized that the FIFA World Cup Qualifier would be the perfect place to draw attention to current events in Iran. Iranian fans, many of whom were likely in exile, waved Iranian flags with “Free Iran” on them, and a few even raised a bold banner with “Go To Hell Dictator” as a political statement against Ahmadinejad.

The players and the fans brought the political protests from the streets of Tehran to the soccer fields of the FIFA World Cup Qualifier in South Korea. Instead of siding with the government that they represented, the players decided to wear the simple green armbands in support of the Iranians protesting against the government. Thereby, the players and the fans actively utilized the international publicity surrounding the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers to promote the message of political freedom in Iran.

How to cite this article: “Iran’s Political Corruption and Turmoil: How Football Brought it to Light,” Written by Brian Kim and Danny Mammo (2009), Soccer Politics Pages, (accessed on (date)). 

Sources and Links

Active as of 2015

Sources used in 2009:

Mir Hossein Mousavi: A Catalyst in the Iranian Presidential Elections


Edited and Updated by Maggie Lin in 2013.

Edited and Updated by Aissa Huysmans in 2015.

One thought on “Iran’s Political Corruption and Turmoil: How Football Brought it to Light

  1. Pingback: A political history of football in Iran | Tamara's Football Mosaic

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