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World Cup in LA: When soccer madness takes over the diverse Persian community, 'we are all Iranian'

Hossein Rasoulinia, 65, displays a photo of himself (bottom row, second from left) posing with his soccer team in Iran 40 years ago.
Hossein Rasoulinia, 65, displays a photo of himself (bottom row, second from left) posing with his soccer team in Iran 40 years ago.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
Hossein Rasoulinia, 65, displays a photo of himself (bottom row, second from left) posing with his soccer team in Iran 40 years ago.
The lunchtime World Cup soccer crowd at Safir, a Persian restaurant in Woodland Hills where fans of the Iranian team watch the games.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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This piece is part of KPCC's occasional series on the World Cup in Los Angeles, which takes a look at the diverse communities of Southern California through the lens of their love for their country's teams. Let us know whom you're rooting for in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter (@KPCC).

In the Westside community of Palms last Saturday morning, 9 a.m. marked the start of an especially high-energy soccer party. Not at a sports bar that opened early for the game, but over breakfast at the IMAN Cultural Center, a gathering place for Iranian Muslims.

The whooping and hollering of fans could be heard from well beyond the parking lot as Iran soccer aficionados, many decked out in green, cheered on the national team against Argentina beneath a big-screen TV. There was no beer, but coffee and tea seemed quite enough.

"These people are hardcore fans for football!" laughed Hirad Vahdat, outreach director for the center, whose name stands for Iranian American Muslim Association of North America. He spent weeks rallying members to attend via Facebook.

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"We invited people to come and enjoy the game, but not the part of alcohol," said Vahdat, who organized the party as an alcohol-free alternative for observant Muslims. "Especially this morning, since the game started early at 9 a.m., we served people breakfast Persian style: Sunny side up eggs, cheese, vegetables. That for us is important, for those people that really want to go somewhere that is not a club, not a bar."

The fans at the cultural center represent just one slice of Los Angeles’ large and very diverse Iranian American community. Iranians are diverse ethnically, culturally and spiritually. Unlike in Iran, where Muslims are the majority, Iranian Americans are a mix: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Baha’i, secular and others. Many who were religious minorities have been here since the 1979 revolution, while others have come more recently to join family.
But there’s one major thing the Iranian expat community has in common: Soccer.
“Everybody, it doesn’t matter who you are, what religion you’ve got, everyone loves the national team," said Jahan Oveisi, an Uber driver who lives in Encino. "This is a sport. It doesn’t matter, it’s not about the politics or anything, or when you came out of Iran. The people get together, they love it.”
After leaving Iran in the mid-1990s, Oveisi spent several years living in South Carolina until his wife convinced him to move to the L.A. area, which has the largest concentration of Iranian Americans in the country.

They landed in Encino. While Westwood, Beverly Hills and nearby Westside neighborhoods are considered the core of “Tehrangeles,” as it’s referred to, many Iranian expats – and businesses – make their home in the San Fernando Valley.
Oveisi recently took a time off from his work to watch Iran play Nigeria during a lunchtime game at Safir, a Persian restaurant in Woodland Hills.
Matt Barani of Safir has been airing soccer games there for years. On this day, he put together a buffet that had a line of customers out the door, some of whom were clearly playing hooky to watch the game.
“They had a long lunch," Barani said slyly, "Because, you know, the food is tasty.”
Barani, who says he’s non-religious, left Iran two years after the revolution. He says Iranian soccer fans of all backgrounds show up when there’s a game on.
“Especially when it comes to soccer, we are all Iranian," he said. "So we get together. They have a good time. So part of it is game, part of it is food, part of it is drink.”
Safir is one of a couple of places in the San Fernando Valley that have drawn crowds to see Iran play in the World Cup. At one table during the Nigeria game, a group of older men reminisced about playing back home.

Hossen Rasoulinia, a recent transplant to Los Angeles, showed off a photo on his smartphone of himself 40 years ago, posing with the team he played on in Iran. There, soccer rivals wrestling for the role of national sport.
“From old days, all Iranians used to play football. In the street, on the roof, everywhere," Rasoulinia said. "It is in our blood, like Brazil, you know? Everybody loves to play football.”
Back at the dry soccer party at the cultural center in Palms, Saman Namazikha brought up another reason why for Iranians, soccer is a unifying force.
"Iran is not a football powerhouse, so when we get a chance to go onto the biggest stage that is out there, it brings everyone together," Namazikha said. "It’s a big accomplishment for us. There are so much negative statements about Iran. So when we are on the national stage like this, and people see us, and that we are pretty normal, we take pride in that."

Are you a fan of a particular team? Send us an image of yourself in your team jersey (#WorldCupSelfie).