Iran’s national soccer team is scrambling to find new cleats after Nike said it won’t let the players wear its spikes, with just a week to go before the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
The move could negatively impact with players’ performances in a sport where small equipment changes can significantly alter one’s feel for the ball.
And even though no one expected Iran to advance deep into the tournament given their draw with Portugal, Spain, and Morocco in the group stage, the news signals that the world’s biggest international sporting event can’t escape being politicized, as is increasingly true in sport overall.
Nike’s move, first and foremost, is a business decision. Nike and Adidas have long battled for soccer supremacy, but the American firm only just recently caught up to the German giant. When European league seasons start shortly after this summer’s tournament, more players will be donning Nike than Adidas for the first time since 2010. After holding a big lead in professional soccer deals for years, Adidas now trails Nike in both total team kit-making deals and in elite individual player sponsorships.
The market they’re tussling over generates several billion dollars a year in retail sales, with hundreds of millions more in sponsorships and advertising. It is perhaps little wonder, then, that each firm seems wary of potential blowback from interacting with Iranian football, in an era when boycotts are easily organized around even the most frivolous outrage.
Adidas just sells kits and player apparel to the federation at a deep discount, rather than sponsoring the Iran team as it normally would when a program chooses to wear Adidas’ designs. Nike’s late-breaking decision cites Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, and the restoration of trade sanctions, as having forced it into refusing to give Team Melli cleats.
The National Iranian American Council’s Jamal Abdi blasted Nike’s decision but targeted his criticisms at the Trump administration. Forcing Iran’s players to adjust to completely different footwear a week out would stain a unifying, global tournament with both geopolitical tensions and a sporting “double standard,” he said.
“This flies in the face of any claims by the Trump Administration that it is targeting the Iranian government and not the Iranian people. We are well aware that the President’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, has openly called for the U.S. to take steps to target even sports exchanges with Iran and may relish this shameful situation,” Abdi said in a statement.
“Governments that drag politics into international sporting events, including Iran itself when it boycotts matches with Israel, face well-deserved admonishment. This situation is unfortunately no different,”
The idea of soccer being beyond the reach of politics is somewhat ahistorical. Nationalism and football go hand-in-glove in most countries where there is stark internal political division. The history of soccer clubs, jerseys, players, and matches serving important political functions or being converted into forums for diplomacy is long, rich, and global.
Just last week, the Argentine federation canceled a friendly match against Israel’s national team. Argentina, a top global soccer power if not quite a favorite to win it all in Russia this summer, had not previously joined in sporting boycotts of Israel. Officials and players suggested the decision was prompted by the killing of hundreds of Palestinians during protests at the Gaza border the day Ivanka Trump and other American officials attended the opening of a new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.
“The stuff that happens in those places, where they kill so many people, as a human being you can’t accept that in any way,” Argentina Football Association vice president Hugo Moyano said.
In response, some Israelis called on FIFA to kick Argentina out of the World Cup entirely.
In terms of social media blowback and organized boycott pressure on corporate strategists, Iran is a much softer target than Israel when it comes to injecting politics into soccer. Nike simply has more to fear from the Trump administration than it does from supporters of fair play bothered by the Iran cleat switcheroo.