There is a long tradition of authoritarian states using soccer’s World Cup to distract attention — domestic and foreign alike — from their tyranny. The Islamic Republic milked buckets of self-serving propaganda out of the national team’s participation in the quadrennial competition, never more than in 1998 when Iran beat the “Great Satan” in Lyon, France.
Iranians, like much of the rest of the world, are soccer mad; the country comes to a halt when Team Melli, as the national squad is known, plays in the World Cup. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself stayed up late to watch the famous win in Lyon. When the team returned home, he reportedly invited Hamid Estili, who scored the first of two goals against the US, to his residence and kissed him on the forehead.