Nobody expected young Persepolis attacker Mehdi Taremi to chip in his penalty-kick against Saudi club Al-Nassr in the previous round of the AFC Champions League, but it was his celebration which took social media by storm when he put his finger behind his neck and pretend to cut his throat.
Persepolis won the match with Taremi’s goal, with photos of the notorious celebration published not only by Iran’s sport newspapers but their political publications as well.
Taremi claimed his celebration was in reaction to Al-Nasr goal-scorer Hassan al Raheb’s celebration in the first leg, but for many of Iranians there was a different meaning. Iran’s political relations with its Arab neighbours has always been far from ideal, with football augmented the enmity.
Iran was the strongest Middle Eastern country in both politics and football before 1979 Islamic revolution; the situation after was completely different. War between Iran and Iraq devastated both countries, allowing their neighbors an opportunity to cement their place politically and in sport. The conflict added fuel to nationalist sentiment amongst Iranians, amplifying hatred toward Arabs.
The war ended after eight years but the battle shifted to football pitch, and every encounter with Arab countries became a do-or-die clash.
A 2002 World Cup qualifier increased Iran’s enmity with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Team Melli needed a win to secure their trip to Japan and Korea, but Miroslav Blazevic’s men were defeated 3-1 at Manama stadium and tearfully watched Bahraini players celebrate with Saudi Arabian flags. This intensified anti-Arab emotions in the country, with some Iranian press publishing racist articles and cartoons in the following years.
Of course, this animosity was not one-sided; Many Iranians have similar stories about experiencing discrimination in Arab airports and cities.
And while discord between the two sides has mostly taken place on the pitch in recent years, the start of Arab Spring in December 2010 further obscured Iran’s relations with their neighbours, leading to proxy wars in Syria and Yemen.
Reactions to recent incidents on the pitch have been mixed; some popular Iranian journalists condemned Taremi’s celebration and the social media reaction which followed.
It’s said that football has the power to heal the old wounds, rather than exacerbate hostility. But as relations between Arab and Persian communities remain strained, any action on the pitch – even a celebration – can provoke observers.