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Soccer's in play, not their politics

Iranian immigrants gather to cheer on their homeland's World Cup quest.

June 13, 2013|Cindy Chang
  • Kourosh Sarooie, 55, of Woodland Hills reacts to Iran scoring during the Iran-Qatar soccer match while watching the game with a group of Iranian Americans at Cabaret Tehran in Encino.
Kourosh Sarooie, 55, of Woodland Hills reacts to Iran scoring during the… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

On a soundstage in Van Nuys, Behrooz Afrakhan was calling play-by-play for Iran's latest World Cup qualifying match against Qatar.

"Ball in the net! Ball in the net!" he shouted in Farsi after Reza Ghoochannejad tapped the ball in for the game's only score. Across Southern California, people cheered with Afrakhan, even at 10 a.m. on a weekday.

For soccer-mad Iranian expatriates, the question of whether to watch the national team is a no-brainer. The question of how has become more complicated.

In February, the U.S. government announced sanctions against the Iranian state-run television station, IRIB, which Iranian Americans had been able to watch by satellite. Other stations sometimes broadcast soccer, but IRIB had been the default option. Now, it is off limits.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 14, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Iranian soccer fans: In the June 13 LATExtra section, a photo caption that accompanied an article about Iranian immigrants who are following their homeland's World Cup quest misspelled the last name of announcer Behrooz Afrakhan as Afrakahn.

Enter the Van Nuys-based satellite station PNG, which already had the Farsi-language rights in North America to the World Cup qualifying rounds. After the sanctions, the PNG broadcasts, anchored by Afrakhan and two other Iranian American media personalities, took on added importance.

"It would have been sad if such a large and influential community couldn't watch the games," said Ali Mansouri, owner of the Los Angeles Blues soccer team, who organized the broadcast. "It is like a religion, not just a game."

At Cabaret Tehran in Encino one morning last week, a small crowd of Iranian immigrants watched the Qatar game over a traditional breakfast of boiled lamb's head. They may root for the Lakers or Clippers during basketball season and the Dodgers when baseball season arrives, but they reserve a special place in their hearts for Team Melli, as the national soccer team is known.

Kamran Kavoosi, assistant manager of the venue, hoped to tune into PNG and support a broadcast with local roots. But PNG's signal was inaccessible. He found a Canadian station that was apparently broadcasting in violation of PNG's exclusive right, saving the day for the dozen or so soccer fans at the restaurant.

Ultimately, many fans don't care what channel they're watching. They just want to see the game. And they want Iran to win.

When Ghoochannejad scored 66 minutes into the game, the announcer's voice was drowned out as people in the restaurant yelled, fist-pumped and jumped up and down.

The victory against Qatar was especially sweet because of a rivalry between the two countries over such things as the name of the Persian Gulf and the civil war in Syria.

Earlier in the tournament, Iran and Qatar had played to ties in each of their three matches.

"Qatar was like Iranian territory until about 40 years ago. Iran is supposed to be the best team in Asia," said Daniel Dinari, 30, a restaurant manager. "It would be like the U.S. losing to Guatemala."

Many Iranian Americans fled Iran during the Islamic Revolution and detest the current regime, but they still back their homeland in international disputes -- and, of course, in soccer.

"We love the team. It doesn't matter who shows the game," said Kourosh Sarooie, an entertainment booker who left Iran in 1978. "Everyone is here to watch the game. We won, and that's all it takes."

The Iranians defeated Lebanon on Tuesday, and will earn a World Cup berth if they beat South Korea next week. Local immigrants would then be in a frenzy of anticipation for Brazil in 2014.

"Our people are our people. All the time we support our people, our players, our artists," said Sam Beykzadeh, a soccer fan who owns a Persian-language bookstore on Westwood Boulevard. "The problems with the government are a different story."


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