CAIRO: When Mexico scored their second goal to go ahead 2-1, a group of Egyptians threw up their arms in displeasure. Mexico was not playing Saudi Arabia or Tunisia, but that didn’t stop the men in the local café from expressing their frustration with how Mexico’s opponent was playing. The team was Iran and Egyptians were behind the underdogs from their first match against Mexico, which ended in a 3-1 defeat.
With Arab Radio and Television (ART) monopolizing the rights to all World Cup matches in the region, Egyptians found themselves in cafes around the country in order to catch a glimpse of the world’s most spectacular sporting event. While Tunisia and Saudi Arabia had their soft spots in Egyptian hearts, it was the Iranians that galvanized Egypt.
“We are supporting Iran because they stand up against the west and that is something Egypt hasn’t done, says Salem, an employee in the café during the Mexico match. “They are our inspiration for what they have stood up for, he says, referring to the current dispute between the United States and Iran over nuclear power.
For Salem and many other men who sat through two Iranian losses, first to Mexico and then to Portugal, Iran was seen as the country to root for. They saw Iran’s participation in the World Cup as a “slap in the face against the west who wants to “make sure Iran cannot become equal to [the U.S.].
“I wish Iran could play the U.S. again like they did in 98, says Ahmed, a college student in Cairo. “Then we could watch them take apart what is supposed to be a good football team.
The conflict between the west, most notably the U.S. and Iran, concerns the Iranians’ intentions regarding nuclear power. The Iranians claim it is for civilian use, while the U.S. believes Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon. Threats of sanctions have been put forth by the American administration although many nations have yet to get on board with the U.S.
“Why can’t they have their own program, Salem continues. “I mean, lets take them at their word first and if they move to weapons then something has to be done, but if not, I think this is just another lie that America is putting forth against us Muslims.
Salem is not alone in his distrust of American policy in the region. Ahmed also feels that U.S. policy has been marred with lies. “We have seen how they work . it is a bunch of lies and how are we supposed to trust them when they didn’t tell the truth about Iraq?
The Egyptian population has come to see Iran as a symbol of the fight against the west and football has turned into the best way of expressing their support for Iran. But, simply watching the games has given Egyptians even more of a grievance, arguing that ART is being used by America to not allow full access to the tournament.
“I am certain that [America] is trying to stop us from supporting Iran and our Arab brothers in this tournament because they are afraid that if they do well we will become more aggressive towards them, Salem argues. “While we support Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is football and we know that when this is over, we will continue on with our lives . and hope Egypt makes it to the next World Cup.
Sitting in the café and watching the men scream at the television as if they can get through to the weaker Iranian team reveals that football is not “just a game as Salem says. Football is the sport that can bridge borders and cultures. The support the Iranians received from Muslims around the globe is more than could have been expected.