World Cup 2022: Iran’s turbulent escalation amid violent anti-government protests

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Iranians protesting against the country's government gather in Vienna outside the stadium hosting Iran against Senegal
Iran is England’s first opponent in the World Cup

In late September, Iran plays a friendly match against African champions Senegal in Vienna, Austria. When the referee blows the final whistle at 1-1, it’s a good score – but the mood is far from celebratory.

The players don’t seem happy, and neither does the coaching staff. Iran’s extraterrestrial fans are certainly not like that.

They were prevented from entering the stadium by local security appointed by the Iranian authorities, but were still able to make their voices heard through loudspeakers and loudspeakers they had set up outside. In fact, they were so loud that Iranian state television broadcast the match without sound.

Life in Iran has been dominated since mid-September by a wave of dramatic anti-government protests that have evolved into the country’s biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic in more than a decade.

The protests erupted after the death of a 22-year-old woman who had been detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating strict hijab rules.

Outside the ground they were chanting: “Say her name: Mahsa Amini.”

The Iranian government does not want people to hear it, especially in the World Cup. It’s not clear how fans or players will react to Monday’s opener against England in Qatar – but everyone will be watching.

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Mahsa Amini is a young Kurdish woman from Saqqez, northwestern Iran. She died in a Tehran hospital on September 16, after spending three days in a coma.

She was visiting the capital with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s morality police, who accused her of violating a law that requires women to cover their hair with veils and arms and legs with loose-fitting clothing.

There are reports that officers hit Amini’s head with a baton and hit her in the head with one of their cars. The authorities denied being ill-treated and said she had suffered “sudden heart failure”. Her family said she was in good health.

Amini’s death sparked outrage. When her funeral was held in Saqqez, the women removed their veils and chanted against the government. Videos of the event on social media and the reaction circulated quickly across the country. Sports provided a platform.

In October, climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in the Asian Championships in South Korea without wearing her headscarf. Thousands met her at the airport upon her return to welcome her back.

Before heading home, she posted a message on Instagram saying that she competed without covering her hair “inadvertently.” To many, the language used in her posts made it seem like she was written under duress.

But football provides the biggest platform for those who want to show support for the protests, as the most popular sport in the country. Notable personalities participated.

Ali Karimi, a former Iran international footballer who spent two seasons at Bayern Munich from 2005-2007, has become a prominent figure in the opposition movement. Ali Daei, Iran’s all-time top scorer and legendary figure in the country, also showed his support.

In the build-up to the September 27 match against Senegal, some Iran players posted messages on social media in support of the protests, despite being told not to. Sardar Azmoun, the 27-year-old striker and possibly star of Bayer Leverkusen, continued to spread his support on Instagram – one of the few social media networks allowed to operate in Iran.

For months, players refuse to celebrate goals scored in the Iranian League. Once the ball crosses the line, the scorer usually lowers their hands, conveying a message that may have been intended to remind those watching what was going on in the country. The Human Rights Activists News Agency estimates that 15,800 people have been arrested and 341 killed in the protests. It also reported the killing of 39 security personnel.

State television simply cut off which team scored a goal, showing the players of the team that conceded instead.

The players of Esteghlal, one of the most followed clubs in Iran, decided not to celebrate when they won the Super Cup two weeks ago. They told the organizers that they would not participate in the post-match party unless there were no fireworks or music. State television cut those images, too.

All Iran’s league matches have been played behind closed doors since the protests began. Many believe it is because the Iranian authorities believe fans can become a security threat.

Iranian beach soccer player Saeed Bayramoun pretends to cut his hair
Pyramon’s gesture mirrored the actions of women who cut their hair short in public protests

At the Intercontinental Cup for beach soccer in Dubai in early November, Iranian Saeed Pyramoun mimicked cutting his own hair after scoring a goal – a gesture that has become a symbolic reference to protests in which some women have been filmed cutting their hair in public. He and his teammates beat Brazil in the final – and again there were no celebrations.

Iran’s basketball, beach soccer, volleyball and water polo teams have chosen not to sing the national anthem in recent games.

But the men’s national soccer team will undoubtedly be the most widely watched. In their final match before the World Cup – a friendly against Nicaragua played in Tehran behind closed doors – several players also refused to sing the national anthem, with the exception of two players who had previously publicly supported the regime.

All of this leads to an extraordinarily fraught World Cup for Iran and soccer fans. What would happen if the Iranian players once again refused to sing the national anthem, or staged another type of protest in front of the cameras in Qatar? What will they do if they score?

The draw itself is pretty cool too.

Amidst all the turmoil and turmoil at home, Iran will face the United States of America, England and Wales – countries that the Iranian government counts among its sworn enemies.

Meeting the United States again in particular will bring back memories of the immense national pride Iran felt after its 2-1 victory in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup in France – their first-ever victory in the tournament.

How would Iranian fans react to a similar result in Qatar? Many feel torn. They are unsure if cheering for the team could mean betraying those protesters who are risking their lives back home.

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