SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - For the Iranian expatriates who have come from far and wide to Russia, the World Cup is a chance to show their pride in a troubled homeland denounced by the West as a rogue state.
Hopes are high that Iran can grab a victory over Portugal in Saransk on Monday and make it to the knockout stage for the first time in their history.
But beyond that is the hope that politics can be put aside and the world can see a different face of their country.
“I hope it shows to the world that we are normal human beings, like everyone else, not monsters,” said Manny Khorasani, a company managing director from Glasgow, Scotland.
Iran and Russia are political allies and near neighbours. But of the tens of thousands of Iranians who have flocked to Russia, the majority appear to be expatriates, supporters said.
Khorasani, originally from Nesha, has lived in Scotland since 1977, first coming to study in Hamilton. He married a Scottish woman and stayed as the Islamic revolution took hold in Iran.
He has been to every World Cup in which Iran or Scotland have taken part, except 1978 in Argentina, when the two countries played to 0-0 draw. He was in Saransk with his son Darran, who was wearing a pink Scotland away strip and draped in a Scottish saltire flag.
“I’ll go to Iran one day, I’ve not been yet,” said Darran, 34, a criminal lawyer. “My workmates and friends know I am here to support Iran. And these first two games have given me pride to be Iranian.”
“The country is portrayed negatively but the Iranian people are the most hospitable and friendly you could find.”
With them was their friend Ian Gold, 29, a marketing manager in Khorasani’s firm, who was wearing a Scotland shirt but was supporting Iran.
“What surprised me at the Spain game was most of the stadium was Iranians. It was amazing,” Gold said.
Iran are taking part in their second successive World Cup. After beating Morocco 1-0, they put up a valiant show against former champions Spain only to lose 1-0.
But the background to the campaign is fraught. Embroiled in regional wars and dominated by religious conservatives, Iran has suffered under longtime international sanctions.
An international agreement limiting its nuclear programme is danger of unravelling as U.S President Donald Trump steps up opposition to Tehran.
That has affected the national side, with funding restricted, overseas travel difficult, and friendly matches hard to arrange. Some hardline religious leaders also frown on soccer.
Just before the World Cup started, Nike declined to provide boots to the team, saying it would break U.S. sanctions.
“Football should not be allowed to be political,” Manny said. “It is about sport.”
Alireza Chatroodi, a 37-year-old physician, had come from his home in Brisbane, Australia, where he has lived for 17 years. He also supported Australia, but Iran came first.
He was impressed that so many fans had come from Iran itself, despite the economic hardship there.
“It’s a great opportunity to represent the country and send a positive image to the world. Even if you lose, you send the message,” he said.
Politics aside, all were excited about Monday’s showdown with Portugal.
“I thought we would be a dark horse of the tournament. I give it 50-50,” said Manny. “(Coach Carlos) Queiroz is a master technician. Unity, discipline and fighting spirit. He has given us that. There aren’t any stars but they work well as a team.”
Reporting by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Ed Osmond