The crowd at the start, stunned by Iran’s unlikely last-minute victory over Wales, gathered around her, trying to negotiate an end to the stalemate. Then, Iranian fans started chanting in Farsi, “Leave her, leave her.” The police, surrounded and appearing nervous, relented, leaving the woman to return to the stadium grounds.
The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement targeting its religious leaders, and tensions, inevitable and lingering, are spilling onto the pitch.
Iran arrest soccer player Voria Ghafouri amid World Cup squad scrutiny
So far in Iran’s first two matches, fans have held up signs or held up banners in support of the protests. Arguments broke out between pro and anti-government supporters in and around the stadium. The demonstrations laid bare the depth of Iran’s unease and alarmed the Qatari hosts, who said before the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that political strife in the region could unfold during the tournament.
Protests in Iran began in September after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody. A crackdown by authorities has killed hundreds of people, according to human rights groups.
The members of the national team of Iran are in a vice, called by the protest movement to denounce a government which does not tolerate any dissent. Authorities arrested a former national team player, Voria Ghafouri, in Iran on Thursday in what was widely seen as a warning to members of the World Cup squad to shut up.
They did just that ahead of their first game in Qatar, against England, refusing to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a show of support for the protest movement. On Friday, however, team members chose to chant, as whistles and boos echoed around Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Ahead of the game against Wales, a few supporters of the Iranian team said that while they were happy with the team’s earlier refusal to sing, they feared the players would come under undue pressure to comment on the policy.
“It’s a very delicate time,” said a 28-year-old Iranian who lives in Britain and attended Friday’s match with his brother, who lives in the United States. “I don’t think we should bring hatred and shame to the players,” added the man, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relatives in Iran.
“They are young guys, here to play football,” his brother said.
There were signs Friday of a more determined effort to silence political protest, such as the removal of the woman wearing the protest T-shirt. A witness said police approached another Iranian supporter who had put black tape over the Iranian flag, as well as over his mouth, and made him remove them.
Photos showed a police officer confronting another woman who was holding an Amini t-shirt and wearing makeup that looked like blood was pouring from her eyes.
It was unclear whether there was a directive from soccer’s world governing body FIFA to quell political protests, or from the Qatari authorities, but the policy appeared to be applied unevenly. Allen Shahipour, who was wearing a homemade “Woman, Life, Freedom” t-shirt, said he was allowed in. So was Peari, 34, from Isfahan in Iran, who wore a button-up shirt screen-printed with an artistic tribute to Amini.
“We are so happy” with Iran’s victory on Friday, she said. But for her, the victory had nothing to do with the protest movement. “I don’t think it will affect anything,” she said.
Another man, named Ajmal, disagreed. “I think it’s good for the revolution,” he said of Friday’s game, including the whistle during the anthem. “The government does not hear us.
Attendees widely suspected that Iranian officials were present at the match. “They are inside. They are outside. They look like spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said a 43-year-old man from Tehran, wearing an Iranian shirt, as he left the stadium with a childhood friend.
For both of them, the victory and the euphoria that came with it were a welcome distraction from whatever was going on back home. “We needed this win,” said the man in the jersey. His friend said winning was “complicated”, but he agreed.
After the game against England, which Iran lost 6-2, the friend chain-smoked cigarettes – not because of the loss, he said, but because of the whole tension in the air. “It’s better,” he said.
The defeat prompted Iran coach Carlos Queiroz to berate fans for criticizing the team for the pressure he put on his players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said Mac Taba, 33. At the stadium on Friday, through all the noise, the fans had done just that, he said.
Plus, “we needed to win,” he said.