Policy Goals: Soccer and the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

When Iranian and Saudi soccer teams face off, the stands become ground zero for airing political and historical grievances.

The “cold war” between Saudi Arabia and Iran is waged with many weapons—heavy arms, proxy forces, petrodollars—but many forget about the soccer balls. Yet, when these countries’ national teams face off, as they have 15 times since 1975, the stands become ground zero for airing political and historical grievances. Even club matches between Iranian and Saudi teams are combustible contests of national pride.
Fans have long touted banners glorifying their sect of Islam or affirming the “proper” name of the Gulf—which Arabs emphatically do not consider Persian. But as Iran and Saudi Arabia’s rivalry has grown hotter since 2011, fans are increasingly directing their potshots at the other country’s foreign policy. At a 2011 game, Iranian fans raised a flag reading “Death to al-Khalifah”—a reference to the ruling family of Bahrain, where Saudi forces helped squelch dissent that spring. At another match, Saudi fans waved the Free Syrian Army flag in a jab at Tehran’s support of the Assad regime.
And it is not just superfans who take the “beautiful game” so seriously. In 2012, a Saudi player sparked an uproar when he celebrated a goal against a Tehran club team by flashing the crowd an undershirt emblazoned with his nickname, “F-16.” Iranian media accused the player of making  veiled threats about Saudi air power, and the president of Tehran’s Sports Council called on Iranian authorities to summon the then-Saudi ambassador. In May, a major match coincided with Saudi airstrikes on Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen, and an Iranian newspaper with ties to the IRGC declared that the game’s meaning “transcended soccer.”
Recent events do not suggest any slowdown of the competition between these regional hegemons. And in the stadium at least, no one can deny that it is a zero-sum game.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.