Iran’s World Cup team declined to sing their national anthem ahead of their World Cup opening game on Monday to support mass protests at home, after many fans accused the team of siding with a violent government crackdown on the unrest place.
Protests demanding the ouster of the ruling Shia Muslim theocracy have swept Iran since the death in September of a young woman named Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for flouting the strict Islamic dress code.
The players were in celebration and silence as the anthem was played ahead of the game against England at Qatar’s Khalifa International Stadium, where thousands of Iranian fans in the stands cheered as the music blared. Some scoffed and others made thumbs-down gestures.
Team Melli, as the Iranian soccer team is known, has long been a great source of national pride in Iran, but they became involved in politics in the run-up to the World Cup, anticipating whether they would use soccer’s flagship event as a platform to get behind to confront the protesters.
Iran were defeated 6-2 by England in Monday’s Group B opening game, but the blows weren’t enough to silence the Iranian fans, who banged drums and banged horns throughout the match.
Before the game, no Iranian player had voiced their support for the demonstrations, which have become one of the most enduring challenges to the clerical elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“We are all sad because our people are being killed in Iran, but we are all proud of our team because they didn’t sing the national anthem – because it’s not our national anthem [anthem]it’s just for the regime,” said an Iranian fan who attended the World Cup and asked not to be named.
The team met with the hard-nosed Iranian President
In the past, Iran’s soccer team was a source of national pride across the country, but many would now prefer it to withdraw from the World Cup, which is being played just across the Gulf from their home country.
Before the trip to Doha, the team met with hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Photos of the players with Raisi, one of whom bowed to him, went viral as street riots raged on, prompting an outcry on social media.
“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team shouldn’t play,” 24-year-old university student Elmira said by phone from Tehran ahead of the game .
“It’s not the Iran team, it’s the Islamic Republic team.”
Iran’s activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors.
Some 54 members of the security forces were also killed, HRANA said, and at least 17,251 people were arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of a larger number of deaths.
“I know their job is to play football, but with all the children who have been killed in Iran, they should have shown solidarity with the people,” 17-year-old high school student Setareh said by phone from the northwestern city of Urmia.
Some fans show solidarity with demonstrators
Some Iranian fans who traveled to Qatar for the World Cup made no secret of their solidarity with the unrest.
They carried banners reading “Women, Life, Freedom” in support of the protests. “Free Iran. Stop killing children on the streets!” shouted an Iranian.
In Dubai, watching the game on a giant outdoor screen, an Iranian supporter said: “We lost badly but I still want to give the team a big shout out.”
Some banners of the national team have been burned by angry demonstrators in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Pictures of children killed in the protests were circulated by Iranians on Twitter, with messages such as: “They loved football too, but they were killed by the Islamic Republic.”
Pejman Zarji, a 38-year-old sports coach who was in Qatar for the World Cup, said the Iran team belongs to the people, not the government.
“There is always – no matter what – a part that is about politics. There is (now) something really important to understand. ‘Team Melli’ is what we call the Iranian team, it’s the people’s team before it’s the government’s team,” he said.
Sara Masoudi, 32, another Iranian fan in Qatar who works for a media management company, downplayed the protests at home. They are “very small” but the media has made them big, she told Reuters.
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