Iran’s players, including captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh (centre), opted not to sing the national anthem ahead of their opening match – Copyright AFP Fadel Senna
With their country torn by riots, the Iran soccer team is stuck in an impossible position in the World Cup as it heads into a decisive clash with the United States.
They are criticized at home, where security forces are fighting protesters, whether they express their support for the protesters or remain silent.
The Iranians have insisted since the start of the competition that they are in Qatar to “fight for the people and give them joy.”
But Carlos Queiroz’s team is torn between conflicting interests as the Islamic Republic government faces widespread protests sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for allegedly violating the strict dress code for women.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights group says more than 410 people have been killed in a government crackdown.
The riots at home have put Iranian players under intense pressure.
“You can’t even imagine behind the scenes what these kids have been going through in the last few days, just because they want to express themselves as footballers,” Portuguese manager Queiroz said after Iran lost their opener against England 6-2.
But after beating Wales 2-0 in the second game, the team is back in contention for a place in the round of 16.
Having to face off against Iran’s political nemesis, the United States, has only intensified the spotlight ahead of Tuesday’s game.
– ‘Real risk’ –
Before the World Cup began, the Iranian players earned praise on social media for refusing to sing the national anthem or celebrate goals after Amini’s death on September 16.
But the tone changed after Queiroz and his players met President Ebrahim Raisi before flying to Qatar.
“Team Melli,” as the national team is known, has traditionally been a unifying force in the soccer-mad country. It is now a symbol of divisions.
Shouts of “freedom” rang out from Iranians in the stadium as Iran took on England. They also shouted the name of Ali Karimi, the Bayern Munich player who has become a critic of the government.
But players like Mehdi Torabi and Vahid Amiri are considered government supporters, and insults were also hurled from the stands.
Before the England game, the players fell silent during the national anthem. Against Wales, they half sang.
The Government took advantage of the victory achieved with goals in stoppage time. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the players had made the Iranian nation “happy”.
Jean-Baptiste Guegan, a French sports policy specialist, said the players were walking a fine line as they risked being banned upon their return from the World Cup.
“If players show their support for the revolt, even in silence, they risk being reprimanded,” he said.
“On the other hand, there are activists and people involved in the fight, who are risking their lives in Iran and want to see them (the team) as a symbol.”
The team could also face suspension from FIFA for making political gestures.
“It’s the players’ dilemma,” Guegan said.
“Whatever they do, they will suffer the consequences. There is a real risk for them if the situation worsens in Iran.”
Last week, former Iranian-Kurdish international player Voria Ghafouri was arrested for spreading “propaganda” against the state. He was finally released on bail on Monday.
Iranian soccer legend Ali Daei, who also played for Bayern Munich, said he had been “threatened” after expressing his support for the protesters.