The World Cup Alphabet – I is for…

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…INDIA

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Despite the fact that football on the domestic scene is more popular than cricket in some areas, it has been a sad and even quite pathetic history for the Indian national side. The sport had been played in India as long as anywhere else in the world thanks to the British and their little Empire going great guns. The league in India is said to also be one of the first leagues in history but much of this is glossed over or lost in time.

 

 

The national side hadn’t bothered to get a team together and play competitive football although they did tour Australia before World War Two. They definitely didn’t try to qualify for the World Cup before the war but they tried to get to first post war tournament which was to be held in Brazil in 1950. In what turned out to be an earlier version of Australia winning their first Winter Olympics gold medal, the other three challengers in Asia to take on India for the Asian spot at the World Cup withdrew and India were handed the golden ticket to Brazil by default.

 

 

The only sticking point for the Indian FA was the fact that the players didn’t use boots, along with other reasons such as the Indian FA not realising how big the World Cup was. It was all well and good in the domestic league to play in bare feet and in India’s fiery derby clashes with Pakistan and the like on the subcontinent, but FIFA soon rejected the notion that India would be able to run out at the big one sans flip flops.

 

 

After FIFA had put its foot down (no pun intended) the Indian FA soon withdrew the team from the tournament and the 1950 World Cup went ahead without an Asian country; it would have been only the second appearance for the region (that would happen in 1954 when South Korea made their debut and were roundly thrashed). In recent times historians have argued that it wasn’t just only because of this that India didn’t go.

 

 

It has been argued that a lack of money also prevented them going even though FIFA has contradicted this saying they would’ve paid for most of their fare to Brazil. There was also the claim that India wanted to take the Olympics more seriously than some football tournament. A political vacuum persisted in the country following their break from Great Britain and split into India and Pakistan, along with the assassination of Gandhi.

 

 

India went from being a possible pioneer in the AFC to being a quirky footnote in the tournament’s history. Not only had India missed out on being only the second Asian team in the World Cup (behind the Dutch East Indies) but they also denied their star player a chance to play on the biggest stage.

 

 

The veteran Mohammed Abdul Salim had played in two matches for Glasgow Celtic in Scotland but had returned home because of homesickness. Even the money offered by Celtic couldn’t keep the player, with Salim asking Celtic to donate the money to an orphanage. Since the 1950 withdrawal India has hardly made a dent in football, with the exception of a runner up spot at an Asian Cup and a couple of Olympic Games appearances.

 

 

India didn’t even start to try and qualify regularly again until the 1986 World Cup. Despite the lameness of the national side the domestic league still has a decent turnout with East Bengal being the heartland of the sport. In 1997 around 130,000 had shown up to see a derby match. Perhaps they should stick to cricket, perhaps they should have just pulled out like the other three Asian qualifiers, but India’s crack at Brazil 1950 is worth a mention in the history of the tournament over the years.

 

 

…IRAN

Iran’s history in this sport is as rich as it is tumultuous and far deeper than that time they broke our hearts in November 1997.

 

 

With football beginning in the 1920s, the ancient sport of ‘Chogan’ (which ended up becoming Polo) was the preferred sport until then. It wasn’t until after World War Two the sport got itself together with teams emerging with names like Soldier, Typhoon and Wealth.

 

 

Before the Islamic Revolution the Iranian national side was the most powerful in Asia. They won three Asian Cups in a row and qualified for the 1978 World Cup where they drew with Scotland in what was the best result by an Asian country to date. Team Melli had arrived. Unfortunately so did the revolution, booting out the Shah and sending the country into chaos. Such Western devilry like football was frowned upon.

 

 

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Tehran’s Azadi Stadium

During this chaos they disappeared from world view. Iran never made any world cup finals as they warred with Iraq and turned away from School of Sharin creator Dr Abbas Ekrami’s idea of education and football working together to make a better society. By the mid-nineties they had built another strong side with legendary striker Ali Daei at the tip of the arrow.

 

 

The play-off with Australia was the first time the two sides had clashed since the 70s in qualifiers; the crowd numbered 100,000 in Tehran to watch our plucky bunch of Socceroos. For the first leg of the play-off with Iran the Socceroos and their entourage (including a random backpacker they had met) flew in from another country on the day of the game, played the game, then got out of there. Over 100,000 men (with the backpacker and David Hill’s girlfriend being the only two women in attendance) saw a 1-1 draw.

 

 

Advantage Australia. It would be simple to come back and get the result. We all knew it was going that way before Peter Hoare and the curse happened. In the emotional battering of that night that gutted the sport in this county for another almost decade it was forgotten how huge this was for Iran and their people. I remember the national anthems and the old screen at the Ponsford End of the MCG showing kids with the Iranian flags pained on their cheeks singing along with glee. Then after the game the celebrating minority dancing outside the G as people walked past head down, no eye contact and thankfully not saying anything.

 

 

A country under a brutal rule that saw many flee and oppression rife. This was the first time they had been to a World Cup in 20 years, since those glory days of the 70s.

 

 

In the 1998 World Cup they would play the United States. A political hot potato if ever there was one. On June 21 in Lyon the two met. The captains exchanged the usual gifts to mark the occasion then also flowers and other trinkets in a show of peace. Then the two sets of players posed together for the team photos. A moment to always remember that sport can unite rather than divide. A moment I will always be in awe of.

 

 

An image for the ages. American and Iranian players posing together before their clash in Lyon in 1998.

Iran would win the match 2-1. Whilst the Iranian players weren’t into the whole symbolism of the win for the ‘war’ with the US, back in Iran the clergy leaders jumped on the opportunity to “stick it up ‘em,” so to speak:

 

 

“Tonight’s honourable and brave game was a beautiful picture of the struggles and conflicts between the Iranian nation and ‘The Great Satan’. Tonight the strong and arrogant opponent felt the bitter taste of defeat at your hands.”

 

 

The win was not only good for Iranian football but for the nation as a whole. No longer was the sport seen as an evil tool of Western Culture and the times of the Western backed Shah. Football was a sport that could be entertaining and help people reach their goals in the eyes of the Islamic regime.

 

Following this World Cup Iran would miss out in 2002 but would go along in 2006 and 2014. They’ll also be in this tournament but will find it tough. To this day women have to sneak in to the famous Azadi Stadium to see the game. A fantastic movie called ‘Offside’ is about these women and the stupidity of the law is one of the better sports related movies you will see.

 

 

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An example of girls sneaking in to the national stadium in the last World Cup qualifying campaign.

 

 

Funnily enough, ever since the fateful night in 1997 we have never played them again at any level even though we are now part of the same federation. Fate should have had us playing off in the Asian Cup final in 2015 but alas, it was not to be. Another time will come where we will meet again.

 

 

About Dennis Gedling

RTR FM Presenter. Glory Guerrillas Producer and Co-Host. Contributer to Football Nation Radio and Football West. Worships at the feet of the mighty Cats, Socceroos, Matildas, West Perth, Glory and Glasgow's Green and White most of the time.

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