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Iran’s World Cup squad refuses to sing national anthem as uprising rages at home


DOHA, Qatar – As their country’s national anthem was played at the World Cup on Monday, Iran’s players appeared quiet and unmoved, refusing to sing in what was widely seen as recognition – or even a show of solidarity with – a popular people. uprising taking place at home.

The appearance of Team Melli, as the Iranian team is known, is being closely watched, and not just for their performances in Qatar’s stadiums. During the widespread unrest in Iran that began in September with the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, Iranian sports figures – including current and revered former players of the national football team – took on a central role.

As anti-government protesters have turned to football players in support of the protest movement, which has faced a deadly and deadly crackdown from the government, Iran’s leaders have tried to prevent players from the team to speak out, hoping to use the sport as a distraction from the uprising, rather than a rallying call, analysts say.

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“I’m excited, but not completely, because of the revolution process in Iran,” said a Team Melli fan who had traveled from the Iranian city of Shiraz, as he strolled through a shopping mall ahead of the Monday’s game at the nearby Khalifa. International Stadium.

“I’m full of energy for my team. But my people are being killed by the regime,” he said. The players were at an impasse, having to think about their family in Iran as they decided to make their voices heard, he said. But he added: “We want more sympathy from them.”

Iranian national team fans in Doha, Qatar on November 21 spoke out in support of the ongoing protests against the Iranian regime. (Video: The Washington Post)

Among the spectators, some showed clear support for the uprising, carrying signs that read “Woman, life, freedom”, the central slogan of the demonstrations. In the stands, some fans could be heard shouting the word “dishonorable” at the team in Persian, echoing a chant launched at security forces in Iran.

Some fans had not noticed the action of the players. “None of the players sang?” said a young man who had traveled from Tehran for the match afterwards. “Of course, that’s a statement,” he said. Iran’s national broadcaster, meanwhile, showed only selected footage of onlookers cheering on Iran and no political signs.

Even before the start of the tournament, some Iranians had asked FIFA to ban the team as a sign of support for the anti-government protests. Others have argued that Iran’s participation in the World Cup is important to protesters at home, as a high-profile event that offers players and spectators a chance to voice their dissent.

But members of the Iranian team, under enormous pressure from the public and security services, remained largely silent, said Omid Namazi, a former assistant coach of the Iranian national team.

“They were put in a very precarious position,” he said. Iranian authorities and intelligence operatives traveling with the team clearly want them to remain silent, while Iranians “expect these guys who are celebrities and well-known to be their voice.”

He couldn’t remember Iranian football becoming so political and polarized.

“It’s the biggest event in the world,” he said. “And obviously the regime is very concerned about that.”

The day before flying to Qatar, the members of Team Melli all met President Ebrahim Raisi on November 14. They posed for a photo with Raisi, a hardliner who oversees the crackdown, angering many Iranians.

Team striker Sardar Azmoun was the most vocal champion of the uprising, Namazi said.

“I don’t care if I get fired,” Azmoun wrote in a post since deleted on Instagram end of September. “Shame on you for killing people so easily. Long live Iranian women.

The post fueled speculation that Azmoun would be punished and dropped from the 26-man World Cup squad. He later posted an apology on Instagram.

In the weeks that followed, sports-related controversies continued to shape the narrative of the Iranian uprising.

An Iranian climber, Elnaz Rekabi, made world headlines in mid-October when she competed without a headscarf in South Korea. In November, members of a popular football team, Esteghlal, did not celebrate after winning the country’s Super Cup. It was a “bitter victory” dedicated “to the women of Iran and the families of all the victims”. a player told Iranian media.

A small gesture by beach soccer player Saeed Piramoon, after scoring the team’s winning goal at the Intercontinental Cup in early November, resonated widely with Iranians supporting the protests. Piramoon faked cutting his hair, mimicking Iranian women who publicly cut their hair amid the protests. The gesture quickly spread on Iranian social networks.

The relative silence of Team Melli contrasted with the outspokenness of some Iranian football legends.

From his base in Dubai, Iranian soccer superstar Ali Karimi has thrown his weight and prestige behind the uprising – a stance he took at the start of the protests, which likely also prevented him from returning safely. security in Iran. On October 4, he was charged in absentia with “encouraging riots”.

Karimi, as well as Ali Daei, former head of the Iranian national football team, and Javad Nekounam, another football star, have all turned down FIFA invitations to attend the World Cup.

Earlier this month, hundreds of hardline Iranian politicians called for tough sanctions, including the death penalty, against Iranian protesters. But Iran’s Portuguese head coach Carlos Queiroz told a press conference last week that members of Team Melli could “protest as they would if they came from anywhere. what other country”.

On Sunday, 32-year-old team captain Ehsan Hajsafi, speaking to the media ahead of the game against England, said the players were “supporting” the protesters, according to Reuters. “They need to know that we are with them,” he said. “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not good, our people are not happy.”

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For some of the supporters of the protests, however, the team had not been outspoken enough – and even their silence during the national anthem was not enough.

“It’s too late,” said Mahmood Ebrahimzadeh, a former Iranian national team player living in exile in Maryland, referring to the team’s refusal to sing. “It won’t do any good anymore.”

“If they wanted to shut up, they could stay in the country and not come to the World Cup,” he said.

Following the 6-2 loss to England on Monday, coach Queiroz hinted that his players were under more pressure than they deserved. “You don’t even imagine, you don’t even know, behind the scenes, what these kids are going through, just because they want to play football, because they want to express themselves as footballers,” he said. he declared.

“They are human beings,” he said. “They are children. They only have one dream.

Berger reported from Washington. Chuck Culpepper in Doha contributed to this report.


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