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

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

It is the end of September and Iran is playing in Vienna, Austria in a friendly match against Senegal, the champion of Africa. When the referee blows the whistle to end the 1-1 draw, it’s a good result – but the mood is far from celebratory.

Neither the players seem happy, nor the coaching staff. Iranian fans outside the field are certainly not.

Prevented from entering the stadium by local security forces hired by the Iranian authorities, they still managed to make their voices heard through loudspeakers and loudspeakers installed outside. In fact, their voice was so loud that Iran’s state television broadcast the match without sound.

Life in Iran has been dominated by a wave of anti-government protests since mid-September, which has become the most important challenge for the Islamic Republic of this country in more than a decade.

These protests started with the death of a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by Iran’s morality police for violating strict hijab laws.

They chanted outside the field: Say his name: Mehsa Amini.

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

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Mehsa Amini was a young Kurdish woman from the city of Saqqez in the northwest of Iran. After spending three days in a coma, he died in a hospital in Tehran on 16 September.

She had traveled to the capital with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s morality police, who accused her of violating the law requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab and their arms and legs with loose clothing.

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It is said that the officers beat Amini’s head with a baton and smashed his head against one of their cars. Authorities have denied he was mistreated, saying he suffered “sudden heart failure.” His family said he is fit and healthy.

Amini’s death provoked people’s anger. When his funeral was held in Saqqez, women took off their hijab and chanted slogans against the government. The videos of this event were circulated on social networks and the reactions spread quickly across the country. Sports has provided a platform.

In October, Elnaz Rekabi, a female climber without a hijab, participated in the Asian Championship in South Korea. Thousands of people met him at the airport to welcome him back.

Before flying home, she posted a message on Instagram saying she had “inadvertently” entered the race without covering her hair. To many the language used in his post appears to have been written under duress.

But football provides the biggest platform for those who want to support the protests, as the country’s most popular sport. And the main figures are involved.

Ali Karimi, the former national football player of Iran who spent two seasons in Bayern Munich from 2005 to 2007, has become one of the faces of the opposition movement. Ali Daei, the record scorer of Iran and the legendary face of the country, has also announced his support.

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

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For months, the players have been refusing to celebrate the goals scored in the Iranian league. When the ball crosses the line, the goal scorer usually lowers his hands, conveying a message that is probably intended to remind those watching what is going on in the country. Human Rights Activists Agency estimates that 15,800 people were arrested and 341 people were killed in these protests. This organization also announced the death of 39 security personnel.

State television broadcasters simply distance themselves from the team that scored and instead show the players of the team that scored.

Esteghlal players, who are one of the two most popular clubs in Iran, decided not to celebrate the Super Cup championship two weeks ago. They told the organizers that they would only attend the post-game event if there were no fireworks or music. The state television also shortened these images.

All the games of the Iranian league are held behind closed doors since the beginning of the protests. Many believe that this is because the Iranian authorities believe that the fans could potentially become a security threat.

Saeed pretends to cut his hair around the Iranian beach soccer player
The gesture around reflects the actions of women who cut their hair in public protests

At the Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup in Dubai in early November, Iran’s Saeed Paraman imitated cutting his hair after scoring a goal – a gesture that symbolized the protests in which some women were He was filmed cutting his hair in public. He and his team-mates beat Brazil in the final – and once again there was no celebration.

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

But without a doubt, the men’s national football team will be the most watched. In their last game 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 makes Iran and its football fans spend a lot of money in the World Cup. What will happen if the Iranian players refuse to sing the national anthem again or protest in front of the Qatari cameras? What will they do if they score?

The lottery itself is absolutely fantastic.

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

A reunion with the United States in particular brings back memories of the immense national pride felt throughout Iran after their 2-1 victory in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup in France – their first win at the tournament.

How will Iranian fans react to a similar result in Qatar? Many feel torn. They are not sure that cheering for the team might mean betraying the protesters who are risking their lives at home.


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