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

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Iranians protesting against the country's government gather in Vienna outside the stadium hosting Iran vs Senegal
Iran are England’s opening World Cup opponents

It’s late September and Iran are playing a friendly against African champions Senegal in Vienna, Austria. When the referee blows the final whistle for a 1-1 draw, it’s a good result – but the mood is far from celebratory.

The players don’t look happy, and neither does the coaching staff. Iranian fans outside the ground certainly aren’t.

Unable to enter the stadium by local security hired by the Iranian authorities, they still managed to make their voices heard through loudspeakers and loud speakers set up outside. In fact it was so loud that Iran’s state television broadcast the match on mute.

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

The protests were sparked by 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.”

Iran’s government doesn’t want the world to hear that, especially not at the World Cup. It is not clear how the fans or players will act in Monday’s opening match against England in Qatar – but everyone will be watching.

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Mahsa Amini was a young Kurdish woman from the city of Saqqez in northwestern Iran. He 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 breaking the law requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab and their arms and legs with loose clothing.

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There are reports that police beat Amini’s head with a baton and rammed her head into one of their vehicles. Authorities denied she was abused and said she suffered “sudden heart failure.” Her family said she was fit and healthy.

Amini’s death caused outrage. When her funeral was held in Saqqez, women took off their hijabs and chanted against the government. Videos of the event circulated on social media and the backlash quickly spread across the country. Sports has provided a platform.

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

Before flying home, she posted a message on Instagram saying she had competed without her hair covered “by accident”. To many, the language used in her post made it seem like it was written under duress.

But soccer provides the biggest platform for those who want to support the protests, as the country’s most popular sport. And important people have been involved.

Ali Karimi, a former Iranian soccer international who spent two seasons at Bayern Munich from 2005-2007, has become a leader of the opposition movement. Ali Daei, Iran’s record goalscorer and a legendary figure in the country, has also shown his support.

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

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For months, players have refused to celebrate goals in the Iranian league. Once the ball crosses the line, the scorer usually lowers his hands, conveying a message that may be intended to remind those watching what is happening in the country. The Human Rights Activists News Agency estimates that 15,800 have been arrested and 341 killed in the protests. It has also reported the deaths of 39 security personnel.

The state television stations simply cut away from the scoring team, showing the players of the receiving team.

The players of Esteghlal FC, one of the two 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 participate in the post-match ceremony only if there were no fireworks and music. State television also cut these photos.

All matches in the Iranian league have been played behind closed doors since the start of the protests. Many believe the reason is that Iranian authorities believe the fans could potentially pose a security threat.

Iranian beach soccer player Saeed Piramoon pretends to cut his hair
Piramoon’s gesture mirrors the actions of women who cut their hair in public protests

At the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup in Dubai in early November, Iran’s Saeed Piramoon mimed cutting his 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 team-mates beat Brazil in the final – and once again there were no celebrations.

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

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 behind closed doors in Tehran – many players also refused to sing the national anthem, with the exception of two who had previously publicly supported the regime.

All this adds up to an unusual World Cup charge for Iran and its football fans. What if Iran’s players again refuse to sing the national anthem or do some other kind of protest in front of the cameras in Qatar? What will they do if they score?

The draw itself is also great.

Amidst all the turmoil and upheaval at home, Iran will face the USA, England and Wales – countries that the Iranian government counts among its great enemies.

The special meeting with the USA will bring back memories of the immense national pride felt throughout Iran after their 2-1 victory in the 1998 World Cup group stage in France – their first win at the tournament.

How would Iran fans react to a similar result in Qatar? Many feel torn. They are not sure if cheering for the team might mean betraying those protesters who are risking their lives back home.

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