TEHRAN (Reuters Life!) - The oval-shaped ball spins high through the night air toward a player streaking toward the far end of the field.
“Oh my God! That’s a sweet-looking catch,” the quarterback whose thrown the ball shouts in American-accented English as the receiver jumps and grabs it with one hand.
A common scene in any U.S. town, perhaps.
But this is Tehran, capital of a country which President George W. Bush once referred to as part of an “axis of evil,” and the American football enthusiasts are Iranians.
“All of us share a love for American football,” said Payam Kashani as he stood watching his friends play on a cool October evening beneath floodlights at Tehran’s Shahid Keshvari stadium.
“We see it as a sport, not an American sport,” he said. “The whole point is for us to have fun.”
So far it is on a modest scale, with only enough participants this evening to take up half a field normally used for soccer, the Islamic Republic’s most popular team sport.
Payam’s brother J.J., a nickname he has kept from his school years in Kansas City in the late 1980s, said most of them became fans while studying in the United States.
He said they had faced no problems over their desire to play the game in Iran, whose clerical rulers see the United States as the “Great Satan” and often rail against Western culture. The two countries are also at odds over Tehran’s disputed nuclear work.
“Nobody is looking for trouble in this group,” J.J. Kashani said. “The authorities have been super and cooperative. There have been no problems with the facilities or anything else.”
The United States is home to a big Iranian Diaspora community, including many who left Iran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Some have since returned to their home country.
“The last time I played was probably 15 years ago. That was in the States,” said Sassan Saebi, 48, whose speed on the field defied his age.
The Kashani brothers and a group of other “Amiranians,” who get together to watch football on satellite television, started playing at Shahid Keshvari once a week about three months ago.
Their Tehran Titans club still lack competitors so they play against each other but hope that will change in the future.
“If we could get a league going and make it more competitive, that would be great,” said Saebi.
They play flag football, a version of the professional game where the defensive team must remove a flag from the belt of the ball carrier instead of tackling him to the ground.
Shervin Alaghband, a 37-year-old businessman who lived in the United States for two decades, said he had heard it was the first time since 1978 that American football was played in Iran. That was the year before the U.S.-backed shah was ousted.
He said the team, with about 20 members, had already been invited to attend a competition in Mexico City next year.
He and the other players wore white and blue shirts with the names of legendary American football stars such as Joe Montana and Roger Staubach emblazoned on the backs.
Even though only 10 people — ranging from teenagers to middle-aged men — showed up this evening, they played with passion. Occasionally, tempers flared.
“I love the competitiveness,” said Saebi, with sweat trickling down his face.
Editing by Paul Casciato