In pics: From Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal to Messi's Qatar victory, she paints history on footballs

Exclusive: Paying tribute to legacy of Fifa World Cup, Iranian artist Fatemeh Zarei uses a rare collection of footballs as her canvas and hopes to bring her exhibition to UAE


Somya Mehta

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Iranian artist Fatemeh Zarei
Iranian artist Fatemeh Zarei

Published: Thu 18 May 2023, 7:12 PM

Last updated: Thu 18 May 2023, 8:02 PM

Fans and non-fans alike, you’ll seldom chance across a human being with the audacity to deny the mammoth influence that the game of football possesses over people from all across the globe. If one had to name an event capable of bringing the entire world together single-handedly, the Fifa World Cup takes the cake. With the tournament finding its ways into the Middle East for the very first time, the year 2022 was a further testament to the verity of the sport as an emotion, to be felt and experienced, rather than just being limited to a physical activity.

But amidst all the high-octane action witnessed in Qatar last year, was an artist and a football fanatic quietly preparing towards what can now be deemed as one of the most unique and expansive original collections of the Fifa World Cup footballs, one that showcases the rich history of the ginormous tournament since its inception in 1930. For Fatemeh Zarei, an artist from Shiraz, Iran, the football itself became a canvas to create an unforgettable ode to O jogo bonito, Portuguese for ‘The Beautiful Game”, a term popularised by Brazilian football legend Pelé.

Fatemeh Zarei is an artist based in Shiraz, Iran
Fatemeh Zarei is an artist based in Shiraz, Iran

A graduate in fine arts, Zarei has over 36 years of experience in painting across a range of different surfaces, experimenting with styles such as impressionism, neo-impressionism, modernism, abstract art and surrealism. “I’m especially interested in painting portraits on different objects and surfaces, other than just using traditional canvases. I paint on jars, tiles, wood and most recently, I’ve painted on the original footballs from the Fifa World Cups,” Zarei tells Khaleej Times in an exclusive conversation. “I’ve taught more than 2,000 students face-to-face and online. You can be four years old or 55, art has no age barriers. Everyone is welcome,” says the 52-year-old Iranian artist. Detaling her unique collection, the artist talks about how the Fifa World Cup coming to the Middle East inspired her to create a never-seen-before football ‘museum’, all through the comfort of her home.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How were your formative years like while growing up? When did your interest in the arts take root?

I grew up in the famous Quran Gate neighbourhood of Shiraz. I was interested in painting ever since I was a child. At the age of 15, I managed to register for a course in Shaheed Avini Cultural Centre in Shiraz to pursue it professionally. In 1995, I started teaching art and colour studies in a private school in Shiraz. After a few years, I received a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the field of painting and continued my studies until bachelor’s degree. My family has always loved my artworks and encouraged me. Now, my daughter is also an artist and works as a musician.

You recently completed an elaborate collection of artworks on footballs showcasing the rich history of the Fifa World Cup… How did the idea take shape?

A creative combination of art and sports, we have put together a rare collection of Fifa World Cup footballs from all the tournaments till date and painted them with intricate details in a never-seen-before way. I’m a football fan myself and closely follow the sport, including matches played by the Iranian club, some Arab clubs, such as Ittihad Kalba FC of the UAE, whose head coach is Farhad Majidi from Iran, Al-Nassr club in Saudi Arabia and the premier club competitions in Europe, and especially the World Cup games.

The sports artwork is my way to showcase my love for art and football. In this collection, I’ve painted on 22 footballs, covering all the Fifa World Cups starting from the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay to the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar. On each football, I’ve drawn portraits of top footballers such as Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Pelé. I’ve also added specific statistics, highlights and trivia around every tournament. I wanted to create a portable museum showcasing the history of the Fifa World Cup. It will be a delight for all the fans around the world.

Last year, Qatar became the first-ever country in the Middle East to host the Fifa World Cup. Did that also play a role in the conception of this idea?

The 22nd edition of the World Cup hosted by Qatar in the Middle East was a very important event because for the first time in the world, a Muslim and Arab country hosted this competition. The presence of 32 national teams that qualified for the World Cup along with billions of people viewing as tourists and spectators from all over the world turned this important event into a golden opportunity to introduce the culture and identity of the host country and the people of the Middle East. As a female Muslim artist living in the Middle East and neighbouring Qatar, I was ecstatic about this, especially when Stephanie Frappart became the first woman to referee a men’s World Cup match in 2022. According to the president of the Fifa, the World Cup in Qatar was the best world cup. It was!

How many portraits did you manage to create for the collection?

In this collection, I have painted 300 portraits, in addition to the statistics and information around each World Cup, including the number of spectators, the average number of goals scored, the number of cities where the matches were held, names of key record holders, in English and the calligraphy is beautifully done by my young student named Ramin Rahimi, who’s 14 years old. That is why this collection is more than just artwork, it’s a museum of information about the World Cup. On two additional footballs, I have painted portraits of 30 famous legends in the sport.

How did the idea of painting on a football come about?

I wanted to infuse my passion for the sport to my art. Previously, there have been artists who’ve painted on the footballs, but it would mostly be limited to painting the flags of each country or some symbols. We wanted to push the envelope, so we came up with this idea of painting portraits of the players from the beginning of the Fifa World Cup to the most recent one. We decided on this a few months prior to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar, which felt so special because it was the first time the competition was being held in our region. It was a proud moment for all of us, I wanted to do something that’s never been done before, to honour the memory.

What were the parameters of choosing which parts to spotlight through the elaborate history of the World Cup? Could you share some interesting facts you came across in this process?

Mr Amin Mohajer Sheikhi, my programme manager and sponsor, who also inspired me with the idea of painting on the ball, sent me the highlights and statistics about each cup. We had a vast sea of information to navigate. World Cup competitions have always been attractive and garnered attention from all around the world but all football fans will agree that some World Cups are more special than the others. For me, some World Cups are truly unforgettable — the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, 1966 in England, 1986 in Mexico, 1990 in Italy.

For instance, I’ve painted beautiful portraits of the French national football team on the deck of an Italian ship called Conte Verde. At that time, it was not possible to travel by plane and the French team had to go to Uruguay by ship. I’ve also painted a portrait of Jules Rimet from France, the founder of the Fifa World Cup, presenting the first championship cup to the president of the Uruguayan federation. I created a portrait of Lucien Laurent from France, who scored the first-ever goal in the history of the World Cup, in the match against Mexico.

The portrait of Jimmy Douglas, the goalkeeper from the United States, who kept the first clean sheet in the history of the World Cup… The portrait of Bert Patenaude from United States, the first hat-trick scorer in the history of the World Cup, and Guillermo Stábile, the Argentinian striker and the first top scorer of the World Cup with eight goals... The portrait of Abel Lafleur was a French sculptor who designed and made the Fifa World Cup trophy. His trophy was used until 1970... I loved digging out these facts about the history and finding creative ways to showcase it on the footballs.

If we consider the origin of today’s football, it’s from England, but the actual origin dates back to ancient China. So, I’ve painted a portrait of the actual origins of football, from the Han Empire in China.

Also, we cannot forget England’s memorable and historic 1966 World Cup win. In this cup, England, which was hosting for the first time, managed to win its first and only championship. I’ve painted the historic sequence, the beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II presenting the trophy to Bobby Moore, the captain of the England national team, with Prince Charles, the current King of England, standing next to the Queen.

If you had to pick one, which Fifa World Cup year did you enjoy recreating the most?

The 1986 World Cup was also one of the most unforgettable tournaments in history, when Diego Armando Maradona led Argentina to the second championship title with his brilliance. I’ve painted Maradona’s beautiful goal against England, known as the ‘Goal of the Century’, when Maradona scored his second goal against England by dribbling six players from the middle of the pitch, which led to the victory of Argentina. I have also painted the portrait of ‘The hand of God’ goal, when Maradona pushed the ball into the net with his hand, which the referee did not notice, and accepted Argentina’s goal against England.

What were some of the challenges you faced while painting this art series on the footballs?

My first challenge was to collect the footballs because I had to find all the World Cup balls from 92 years ago until today, and it was certainly a difficult task because these balls are very rare and only a few collectors have them in the world. Another challenge was that painting on a ball is very different from painting on a regular canvas because the surface of the ball is round and slippery, and it is not suitable for painting because the texture of some balls is uneven and drawing a portrait on it requires great precision.

Lastly, what are your future plans of exhibiting this collection?

I have not put it on public display yet but we have decided to exhibit this collection in Iran and also the UAE and Qatar for visitors and buyers to come and witness it. For the next stage, we’ll consider some countries in Europe. But for now, I’m thrilled that we’ve managed to complete this ‘beautiful’ collection.

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