Iran’s World Cup team declined to sing their national anthem before their opening match on Monday in a sign of support for mass protests at home after many fans accused the squad of siding with a violent state crackdown on the unrest. Reuters reports.
Protests demanding the downfall of the ruling Shia Muslim theocracy have gripped Iran since the death two months ago of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, following her arrest for violating strict Islamic dress codes.
The players were solemn and silent as the national anthem was played before the match against England at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar, as thousands of Iranian fans shouted in the stands as the music blared. Some booed and others made thumbs down.
Team Melli, as the Iranian football team is known, has long been a huge source of national pride in Iran, but got caught up in politics in the run-up to the World Cup, expecting whether they would use football’s showpiece as a platform to get behind the protesters.
Iran was beaten 6-2 by England in the Group B opener on Monday, but the thrashing wasn’t enough to silence Iranian fans, who banged drums and horns throughout the game.
Prior to the game, no Iranian player had expressed support for the demonstrations by compatriots from all walks of life, one of the most sustained challenges for the cleric 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 for not singing the national anthem – because it is not our national anthem, it is only for the regime,” said an Iranian fan who World Cup and did not want to be mentioned by name.
In the past, the Iranian football team has been a source of fueled national pride across the country. Now, with mass protests, many would prefer it to pull out of the World Cup held across the Gulf from their home country.
Before traveling to Doha, the team met with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing to him, went viral, as unrest continued in the streets, sparking outrage on social media.
“I have mixed feelings. I like football, but with all those children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not be playing,” university student Elmira, 24, said by phone from Tehran before the game .
“It’s not Iran’s team, it’s the Islamic Republic’s team.”
The activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had died in the unrest on Saturday, including 58 minors.
About 54 members of the security forces were also killed, HRANA said, with at least 17,251 people arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of an increased number of deaths.
“I know their job is to play football, but with all those kids killed in Iran, they should have shown solidarity with the people,” said high school student Setareh, 17, by phone from the northwestern city of Urmia.
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. “Freedom for Iran. Stop killing children in the street!” shouted an Iranian woman.
In Dubai, a female Iranian supporter watching the game on a giant outdoor screen said, “We lost badly, but I still say kudos to the team”.
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In the Iranian capital Tehran, some banners of the national team have been set on fire by angry protesters.
Photos of children killed in the protests were shared en masse by Iranians on Twitter, with posts such as: “They also loved football, 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 Iranian team belongs to the people and not the government.
“There is always – no matter what – a part that is about politics. There is something very important to understand (now) – ‘Team Melli’ is what we call the Iran team; it is 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 were “very small,” but the media made them big, she said Reuters.