Iran’s players sing their national anthem before the match against Wales – Copyright AFP/File Chris DELMAS
Jed Court with Stuart Williams in Paris
Iran’s soccer stars scored a famous last-gasp victory at the World Cup, but scrutiny over the team’s conduct ahead of the decisive clash with the US will only intensify as its leaders push to crack down on the protests at home
In a stunning U-turn, the Iranian players sang their national anthem before Friday’s game against Wales. His silence when the song was played before Monday’s match against England was seen as a sign of solidarity with the protests.
Meanwhile, there are no signs of a waning protest or crackdown as Iran prepares for Tuesday’s already politically charged match against the United States, which Iran’s clerical leaders like to label “the great Satan.”
A prominent former international star of the past decade, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested in Iran on Thursday after she backed the protests and condemned the crackdown.
The protest movement that erupted 10 weeks ago following the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested by the morality police, has created the most delicate of situations for the players who are household names in the football-crazed country.
Many supporters of the movement have not forgiven the team for meeting ultra-conservative chairman Ebrahim Raisi before heading to Doha, and the anthem gesture before the England game did little to redeem them.
“Sons of mullahs” and “Return to factory settings” were some of the insulting terms used on social media against the players after they opted to sing the anthem this time.
“Disgraceful mercenaries,” tweeted Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute in London.
There had also been speculation that the Iranian players would not celebrate the goals. But the team erupted into wild celebrations when two late goals were scored against Wales in the final minutes.
Former England player and prominent TV commentator Gary Lineker tweeted: “Given the pressure Iran’s players are likely to be under, this is a spectacularly emotional win.”
– ‘Incredibly painful’ –
Maziar Bahari, the founder of the Iran Wire news site, said the players had clearly been pressured to sing the anthem.
“The most listless version of the anthem of the Islamic Republic. The players have been threatened that they have to sing the anthem or else,” he said.
It is not clear if the moment before the game the arrest of Ghafouri, who was detained after training with his club on Thursday, was intentional on the part of the authorities.
But the player, who is of Kurdish origin, has been one of the most outspoken prominent voices in Iran against the repression and particularly in the Kurdish-populated regions of western Iran, where activists say dozens of people have been killed in just the last week.
In a separate arrest, authorities also detained Pejman Rahbar, the editor of the widely followed sports website varzesh3.com, according to reports.
The state’s response to the protests has raised questions about whether the team represents Iran or the regime that has ruled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the shah.
The team is known in Persian as the “Tim Melli”, “The National Team”.
“Incredibly painful to see this humiliation of #TeamMelli,” wrote historian Roham Alvandi, associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“This is how the Islamic Republic denies us even the simple joy of supporting our national team on the world stage.”
– ‘Not our enemies’ –
Reports also suggested that the Qatari authorities were not allowing some fans to bring alternative Iranian flags into the stadium.
An AFP photographer at the stadium on Friday saw security confiscate a fan’s flag bearing the protest slogan “Woman, life, freedom.”
The turbulence inside Iran has also tested the team’s Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz, who has tried to argue that his team should not get involved in politics and defend their players.
The vilification of some members of the team on social media even led some to suggest that the broken nose sustained by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand was karma for bowing to Raisi in the pre-Doha meeting.
“The players are not our enemies,” Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week.
Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi denied on Thursday that his team was pressured by his government to sing the anthem, saying: “I don’t like to talk about political issues, but we are not under any pressure.”
A video later went viral on social media showing Queiroz gently berating the BBC reporter who had asked Taremi for his opinion, saying: “Why don’t you ask (England manager Gareth) Southgate about England and the United States leaving Afghanistan?”