As Iran and the United States prepared to face off on the pitch at the World Cup, the Islamic Republic’s team faced a question usually reserved for soccer fans, not players: Whose side are you on?
Of course that’s not to suggest that the Iranian team is rooting for its opponents. Rather, the Iranian team — once a unifying force for supporters at home — has been under scrutiny from the beginning of the tournament about where it stands on the protests that have been roiling Iran for more than two months.
As Grid has reported, the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini triggered a broad popular agitation demanding women’s rights — and in some cases, the removal of the theocratic regime that has governed Iran for more than four decades.
By many accounts, the protests have divided certain elements within Iranian society. They are now dividing Iranian soccer fans as well. It’s a classic collision of sports and politics — and it involves a country where politics and protest are reaching a dramatic and potentially dangerous level.
At heart, the question is simple: Is a global stage as powerful as the World Cup an ideal place and platform from which to air political views and grievances, effectively sharing those messages with billions of viewers around the world? Or should politics and political views — however deeply felt — take a back seat at the World Cup or the Olympic Games to keep these occasions and all those viewers focused squarely on the athletes and their sport?
A “precarious situation”
Omid Namazi, the Iranian team’s former assistant coach, addressed the question before the World Cup. Speaking of the Iranian players, he said, “They’ve been put in a very precarious situation.” The regime wants them to keep out of politics; but many of their fans back home “expect these guys who are celebrities and well known to be their voice.”
“This is the biggest event in the world,” Namazi told The Washington Post. “And obviously the regime is very concerned about this.”
Before the first match was played, it was clear where some of the Iranian players stood on the matter, and thus also clear that the regime’s concerns had been justified.
As Iran’s national anthem was played ahead of its maiden match against England, the players stood in silence, refusing to sing, in an apparent gesture of support for the protest movement. At minimum, it was an expression of distaste for the Iranian regime.
That distaste was visible around the stadium in Qatar: Among the spectators were Iranian fans who held banners with the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom” — a rallying cry for anti-regime protesters at home.
Earlier, the Iranian team captain had expressed his support for the protesters, saying those demanding change in Iran should know that the team was “with them.”
“We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” Iranian soccer player Ehsan Hajsafi told reporters in Qatar. “We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice, or we should not respect them.”
But something happened between that opening match — played last Monday — and their next contest four days later: This time, as the anthem played before their match against Wales, the team sang along. That prompted jeers from some Iranian spectators in Qatar.
Why the change of heart? No explanation was given — and the sing-along seemed far from enthusiastic — but it certainly appeared as if the message had gotten through: Such signs of dissent were unwelcome, and perhaps dangerous. And if the players needed any reminder of the stakes and the pressure to steer clear of controversy, they got one via another news bulletin from Iran.
On Thursday, Voria Ghafouri, one of Iran’s soccer stars and a former member of the national squad, was arrested for “insulting the national football team and propagandizing against the government,” according to state news agencies in the country. A longtime critic of the regime in Tehran, he had recently expressed sympathy for Mahsa Amini’s family, which hails from the same western Kurdish region of the country as Ghafouri.
Ghafouri was held for two days before his release on bail. He is one of at least four Iranian soccer players who have been detained in recent weeks for either participating in or supporting the protests.
And ahead of this week’s showdown with the U.S., reports have highlighted a more direct source of pressure on the players in Qatar: Their families in Iran were said to have been “threatened with imprisonment and torture” if the team didn’t “behave,” according to CNN.
Politics on the U.S. side as well
While the Iranian players and fans were making their own judgments as to whether to take public stands at the World Cup, the U.S. entered the fray in a different way.
On Saturday and Sunday, the U.S. Soccer Federation published posts on its official social media accounts that showed doctored images of the Iranian flag. The flags had been stripped of the Islamic Republic’s official emblem, in what the federation’s spokesman said was a message of support for Iranian women.
While the U.S. government and many private organizations have voiced support for women’s rights in Iran and the protests more generally, this particular example — the altering of a national emblem — raised eyebrows. They did more than raise eyebrows in Tehran; Iran complained to FIFA, the global soccer federation and organizer of the World Cup, calling for the removal of the U.S. team for disrespecting the Iranian flag.
“Respecting a nation’s flag is an accepted international practice that all other nations must emulate,” Safia Allah Faghanpour, a legal adviser to Iran’s soccer federation, said. “The action conducted in relation to the Iranian flag is unethical and against international law.”
The U.S. federation took down the posts, and FIFA is not expected to take any action. But it was one more off-the-pitch controversy — and one more collision of politics and sports at this year’s World Cup.
For the Iranian players on the ground, the fallout of this collision will likely reverberate beyond the tournament — particularly if they take any overt stand against the government.
The stories of their fellow Iranian athletes who have stood with the protesters are instructive — and chilling. There was Elnaz Rekabi, the Iranian climber who participated in an international championship in Seoul in October — and did so without covering her head, thus contravening, in the most public of ways, one of the Iranian regime’s theocratic norms. The act made her a star among the protesters in Iran.
But reports after she returned home suggested that Rekabi may have been subjected to a period of house arrest. In remarks after she returned to Iran, Rekabi also distanced herself from her apparent activism, saying that she had simply forgotten to cover her head.
Something similar happened with the Iranian archer Parmida Ghasemi, who was seen removing her hijab during an awards ceremony in Tehran — and thus viewed as supporting the protests — only to later say that she had not noticed the covering falling from her head. “This led to reactions which caused some misunderstandings,” she said in a video posted on social media.
While it was unclear whether Ghasemi or Rekabi had been pressured by government to backtrack, the country’s deputy sports minister painted their initial support for the protests as the result of “the enemy’s propaganda.” “They regretted (sic) and are looking for an opportunity to make up for their mistake,” Maryam Kazemipour, Iran’s deputy sports minister, told state media earlier this month.
All told, Iran has detained some 14,000 protesters over the past two months. There has been no large-scale crackdown, but many fear it may be coming. As Grid special contributor Roxane Farmanfarmaian, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of Cambridge, wrote on Tuesday, the regime in Tehran “has no history of compromise on such matters and has only grown more rigid over time.”
A chilling observation — and one that will no doubt be on the minds of the Iranian players in Qatar as they consider what signal to send when they take the field for their next match.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.