Day three: when is soccer not just a game?

Stephanie Jenzer on the big match, oh, and the election, too, in Iran.

Big sporting events are rarely just about love of the game. Sure, many of us are enthralled by the drama of a good physical battle. For both fans and athletes alike, a hard-fought game can get the adrenalin pumping like little else.

But as a TV news producer, who has covered sporting duels around the globe, I also know these big competitions are often about what else invades the arena. Whether it is economics, personalities or the science of doping, sport is never just about sport.

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveil their sympathies at halftime at the big soccer match. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

I supposed then, I could expect no less in Iran, where a high-stakes soccer game just happened to coincide with a political cliffhanger.

Just 36 hours before Iranians were to go to the polls, in what many believe will be a kind of referendum on the four-year term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's national soccer team played host to the United Arab Emirates.

It was a make-or-break game to determine whether Iran would qualify for next year's World Cup.

A loss and Team Iran would be out of contention. A win and they'd live to fight another day.

Team Ahmadinejad

Keep in mind that Iran's national team is closely associated with Ahmadinejad, so closely in fact that he recently ordered the use of his presidential plane to fly the team to a match in North Korea.

Election blog

CBC reporters Nahlah Ayed and Margaret Evans, along with producer Stephanie Jenzer, are in Iran all this week to cover the presidential election on Friday. Throughout the week, they will be filing their impressions of the country and the people they meet.

Day one blog can be read here.

Day two is here.

Consider, also, that the wave of support for moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's chief political rival in this race, that seems to be engulfing much of Iran.

Taken together, here was a situation in which both Ahmadinejad and the national team were standing on the brink of elimination at the same time.

For a sports and political junkie like me, the timing was just too delicious to resist. So, off to the game.

Politics at play

Like many things in Iran, there are rules attached to going to a soccer game. Iranian women are not allowed to attend.

Being a foreign journalist, I received an exemption and found myself virtually alone in a sea of men.

Additionally, Iran's governing soccer body had declared there should be no visible displays of political colours at the match.

So the Mousavi green that has been so prevalent on the streets of Tehran in the past few days seemed muted as the game began.

The politics at play, however, were hard to miss.

First, there was the fact that Tehran's Azadi Sport Complex was more than half empty. For a match of such magnitude even veteran sports writers were a bit taken aback.

Meanwhile, the other big game is in the streets where supporters of all three presidential candidates, including in the case of this family, reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi, show their colours. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

A rumour that had been swirling since morning offered a partial explanation: the Ahmadinejad camp had distributed 60,000 free tickets to supporters, many of whom simply did not show up.

One reporter I spoke to said he saw people trying to scalp their tickets at the last minute. Another said some people just wanted to avoid a confrontation with Mousavi supporters.

A third suggestion, though, struck me as the most likely. After nearly a week of street demonstrations, many resembling a party atmosphere, it was all about to come to an end.

In the last 24 hours of an election, campaigning is supposed to halt and so many simply chose to forgo the match and remain on the streets one last night.

As my translator explained, there was a bigger game in town.

Goals in sight

Still, as if on cue as halftime started, the tens of thousands who did attend the game jumped to their feet and exercised their political voices.

The name "Mousavi" was chanted over and over again as many slipped hidden green ribbons from their pockets and waved them in the air. Ahmadinejad supporters countered by waving posters of the president and pumping their fists.

Iran's Ali Karimi, right, controls the ball past Obaid Khaleifa of United Arab Emirates during their World Cup 2010 qualifying match at the Azadi (Freedom) stadium in Tehran on Wednesday, June 10, 2009. (Vahid Salemi/Associated Press)

The score was nil-nil as the second half started. I began to wonder what would happen if Iran actually lost the game and this soccer-mad nation would be deprived of a trip to the World Cup.

"Ahmadinejad uses the soccer atmosphere to his advantage," one sports writer said, telling me of the president's sometimes televised visits to the team. "If Iran doesn't win, some may blame him."

"At the polls?" I asked. He just smiled slightly and raised an eyebrow.

In the end, Iran survived the contest on the pitch, eking out a one-nil victory over the UAE. It still needs to win another match next week to advance to the World Cup.

With some polls indicating Friday's vote may be so close that a second round of balloting may be necessary, Ahmadinejad's battle to prevail may take a bit longer as well.

On both fronts, a nation waits.