It was almost 45 years ago to the day,on the afternoon of Friday, November 25, 1977, when the referee blew the final whistle of the soccer game between Iran and Australia, and deafening chants of “Iran, Iran” erupted from some 100,000 spectators in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Joy was everywhere in our soccer-loving nation.
The young national team had beaten Australia 1-0 and made history by earning a spot in the 1978 World Cup, to be held in Argentina. For the first time, Iran was to be the sole representative of the Asia-Pacific region, among 16 world class teams. It was one of the moments of my life that I will never forget. I was a midfielder of the national team.
Another moment I have never forgotten was when we were returning to Iran after the world Cup in summer of 1978. As I left the plane, I could hear chants of “death to the Shah,” the despot who was ruling Iran at the time.
When I departed my home country in the early summer, the domestic situation seemed stable on the surface, with no signs of imminent, large-scale change. And now things have changed so dramatically, so quickly.
It was the culmination of decades of backlash against the Shah’s iron-fisted rule. I had firsthand experience of the regime’s abuses, rampant corruption, and the actions of its notorious secret police, Savak, at university and even in my soccer career. I understood why the vast majority of the people despised the Pahlavi dynasty and the entire monarchic system underlying it.
Under those circumstances, my fellow Iranians’ strong sense of national pride found an outlet in soccer, and they loved our team. Its players, in turn, supported their efforts to free the nation.
Protests continued for several months, and the Shah was ousted by a massive revolution on February 11, 1979. I left Iran to continue my graduate studies in sociology in California. It was quite evident to me that the West was totally blindsided by the removal of the Shah, who was perceived as irremovable.
The revolution had been all about freedom and democracy, but Ruhollah Khomeini hijacked its leadership to pursue a different agenda. Soon, he established theocratic rule and showed that he had zero tolerance for democracy and democratic tendencies. Unbridled terror and executions started just a couple of years after the Shah’s downfall.
A hot summer day in July 1983 was another moment that I will never forget. A phone rang and I answered it to hear one of my friends crying and telling me in a broken voice that Habib Khabiri had been executed. Habib, with his constant smile, was the rising star of Iranian soccer who had started playing at a very young age and soon earned a place on the national team, ultimately becoming its captain. I still vividly remember his unbelievable shot from 30 meters away during the qualifying match against Kuwait in 1978.
Habib and I played at the same club and soon developed the same politics. He was an activist with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), the principal Iranian resistance movement and the main target of the ayatollahs’ terror campaign. He was executed alongside dozens of the MEK activists. Since then, dozens of Iran’s other champions and national team players have been executed.
Today, Iran is once again roiling in nationwide protests against tyrannical rule.After more than two months,it is clear that a new revolution has started. Cries of “death to Khamenei” and “death to oppressor, be it Shah or the leader” are being echoed almost every day, with young Iranians clashing with repressive forces every day and burning the billboards and statues of the regime’s leaders, using the tactics that have been deployed by the MEK-affiliated Resistance Units in recent years.
And once again Iran is going to the World Cup and is in the same group as England and the US.
Many things have dramatically changed since 1978. But to me the similarities are striking. People from different age groups, from all walks of life and from different nationalities are united for one objective: Overthrowing the ruling theocracy.
As the mullahs’ regime is on the brink of collapse, once again the slogans in the streets are “Freedom, freedom.” And the regime is so loathed that it cannot even try to exploit the games for propaganda.
In the age of the Internet and social media, the world cannot be surprised by the big change coming. It should be on the side of young brave Iranian women and men who are risking their lives for freedom. It should recognize their right to resist, defend and bring about regime change, and it should shut down Iranian embassies until that outcome is realized.
Something tells me that after a long odyssey we are getting very close to the happiest moment of my life, when my homeland becomes free and its people establish a secular, democratic republic Iran.
Hassan Nayeb Agha, a U.S.-educated sociologist was a member of Iran’s national soccer team in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. He is a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the Iranian parliament-in-exile, residing in Paris.