'Won't Quell Public Anger': Fans Divided Over Iran Team's 'Silent Protest' at WC
Iran's football team had stayed silent during the national anthem before their opening match at the FIFA World Cup.
“They’ve done a great job, but I don’t think it will quell the anger of people and families of those who were killed in many parts of Iran,” remarks Mohammed Taghavi, a former national football player, on the ‘silent protest’ by Iran’s national football team at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“This isn’t our team; this is the national team of the Islamic Republic, which dictated the words of the Islamic Republic. We have given our love to the national team all these years; it should not be one-sided. The national team should repay the people,” adds Reza (name changed), an Iranian football fan and protester who's been risking his life by participating in the ongoing anti-government protests.
Iran's national football team, Team Melli, on 22 November, refrained from singing the national anthem during their match against England in an apparent show of solidarity with the uprising at home.
However, Iranians are divided on this show of support, because many, like Taghavi and Reza, perceive this act as ‘a part of the plan’ to undo the damage caused to the team’s reputation by their prolonged silence.
Taghavi says, "This was a part of the plan by the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran to appease angry fans. They are trying to repair the reputation of the players by now turning them into the voice of the Iranian protester.”
A Show of Solidarity or Appeasement?
Iran has been in a state of flux with anti-government protests entering the third month after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was allegedly killed in the custody of Iran’s morality police on 16 September.
A football-loving country, the people of Iran revere their players. However, the lack of consistent support from the sportspersons who represent the Islamic Republic in one of the most-watched sporting events of all time has angered protesters and fans in and outside the country.
At the Iran-England World Cup match held on 21 November at the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar, Iranian spectators reportedly went as far as to boo the Iranian football team and call them “bisharaf” (shameless) for their lack of solidarity.
Earlier, the footballers had come under fire for holding a meeting with the Islamic Republic’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, before heading off to Qatar for the World Cup. Former Iranian footballer Yahya Golmohammadi wrote on Instagram that the meeting “was the best opportunity to get the voice of a mourning nation heard,” adding, "In the field of loyalty, you cannot get more than zero.”
A day before the match, on 20 November, the captain of the national team, Ehsan Hajsafi, said in a press conference, “We have to accept that conditions in our country are not right, and our people are not happy. They should know that we stand with them. And we sympathise with them.”
Following Hajsafi’s statement, Iranian football fans and protesters were expecting a show of solidarity on the field.
However, the national team’s players continue to draw criticism despite their ‘silent protest’, with memes being shared across protests groups and Iranian social media accounts.
In fact, some protesters in Iran were even seen rallying in support of England and celebrating their win; a few were spotted waving the United Kingdom’s flag after Iran's loss to England.
Although the media worldwide applauded the 'silent protest', the pro-regime media in Iran, which is under heavy state censorship, has made little or no mention of it.
After Iran's loss to England, Team Melli’s coach Carlos Quieroz furthered the ongoing controversy by asking Iranian fans not to “pressurise” the players or “politicise” the game.
Speaking at a news conference, Quieroz said, “To those who come to disturb the team with issues that are not about football, they are not welcome because our boys, they’re just simple football boys.”
What Do Fans Want?
So, what are die-hard football fans, who are risking their lives protesting on the streets, expecting from their idols?
“If Iranian national players talk about Iran's situation in press conferences or make a big symbolic move on the ground, we will support them again,” Reza tells The Quint.
“Carlos Queiroz's words have only made people angrier. He blamed the people for the team's loss," he says, adding that “Queiroz is siding with the Islamic Republic by normalising the situation – and he does not care about the people and the national team.”
Another Tehran-based protester and football fan, Leila*, says, “I am a fan of the Esteghlal team (Tehran-based Iranian football club), but not a fan of the Islamic Republic’s team. Not singing the anthem was a good move, but it’s worthless to our people.”
Leila alleges that the night nine-year-old Kian Pirfalak was allegedly killed, these players were taking pictures laughing and joking. “They didn’t care at all what was happening that day back home.”
“I don’t understand why the players have to bow down and flatter the President. Don’t they know what injustice this man has done to our people?” asked Leila, referring to the players’ recent meeting with the leader.
Over the past week, the Iranian regime’s security forces have continued to violently attack protesters, siege several cities in the Kurdistan region, and open fire on civilians. The growing number of civilian deaths “at the hands of the security forces” has not only angered Iranians, but also highlighted the need for bringing global attention to their fight for freedom.
According to latest reports, more than 430 protesters have been killed, including 61 children across cities in Iran. Nearly 18,000 have been arrested and more than 12 people have been charged with “waging war against god’ and “corruption on earth” – a charge that carries the death penalty.
"We are at war with the Islamic Republic, and football players have the best opportunity to show the world the cruelty done to our people," says Reza.
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