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Politics and football mix as Iran hosts Palestine

October 5, 2011 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
Iran's Mohammad Ghazi, left, leaps with Palestine midfielder Mali Kaware at Azadi Stadium on Wednesday.
Iran's Mohammad Ghazi, left, leaps with Palestine midfielder Mali Kaware at Azadi Stadium on Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Palestine beaten 7-0 by Iran in friendly match in Tehran on Wednesday
  • Iran's rulers have used match to further political cause, says expert
  • Palestine team traveled without players holding Israeli documents
  • Match was a warm-up for Iran's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Bahrain

(CNN) -- On a political level, it was a powerful Middle East nation playing host to a people whose cause it supports.

As a sporting contest, it was a one-way procession as Iran's national football team warmed up for next week's World Cup qualifier with a 7-0 thrashing of an under-strength Palestine side.

Iran's rulers support Palestine's claims for statehood on the condition that Israel is dissolved -- a "cancer cell" that needs to be removed, according to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and Wednesday's friendly match in Tehran highlighted some of the difficulties the Palestinians face.

The team traveled to Iran soon after Tehran hosted a five-day international conference in support of Palestine intifada -- or uprising -- attended by its Arab and other Islamic allies.

They arrived at Azadi Stadium without any players who hold Israeli documents -- a significant chunk of the squad -- and predictably struggled to hold off an Iran side featuring some of Asian football's biggest names.

Having kept the match scoreless until first-half injury-time, a headed goal from Mohammad Ghazi opened the floodgates and six more followed after the interval.

The Palestinians have long used football to form an idea of a nation
Football expert James Montague

Karim Ansarifard, Javad Nekounam (with a penalty), Javad Kazemian, Pejman Montazeri and Pejman Nouri made it 6-0.

Kazemian completed the rout at the end with another penalty after Palestine's goalkeeper was sent off for a second booking.

An American soccer star playing for Palestine

The match will not count in FIFA's world rankings, as Iran coach Carlos Queiroz brought on a seventh substitute -- one more than is allowed for "A" internationals.

But it was one more step for the Palestinians, who hosted their first competitive home match in March.

The team lost in the second round of Asian qualifying matches for the 2012 Olympics, and also in the second round of regional qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup.

Iran, by contrast, is top of Group E in the third round ahead of second-placed Bahrain's visit to Tehran on Tuesday.

"The Palestinians have long used football to form an idea of a nation," Middle East football expert James Montague told CNN.

"FIFA are one of the few organizations to have recognized an entity called Palestine, and their mere existence is a chance to fly the flag abroad.

"The fact that the head of the FA is a man called Jibril Rajoub, Yasser Arafat's national security adviser and one of the highest-ranked men in Fatah, tells you that they take the team -- and the power that football has to invoke national unity and foreign propaganda -- very seriously indeed."

Montague, author of the book "When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone," said the friendly match gave Ahmadinejad a chance to show his support for Palestine's cause.

"He has often used football for political ends, like before the 2006 World Cup when he used the team's popularity to boost his dwindling support," Montague said.

"But it can backfire. The terraces in Iran have also become a crucible for opposition to unpopular policies in a country with very few outlets for dissent.

"Palestine are on the up. After years of a debilitating Israeli occupation, they now have a pro league, a women's team and a national squad that came close to qualifying for the group stage of Asian qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

"Iran's golden generation has passed, but under Carlos Queiroz they hope to return to the glory days when they made it to France '98 and famously put Team USA to the sword."

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