Women’s Protests Overshadow Iran’s World Cup Defeat – GV Wire

Iran’s players did not sing their national anthem and did not celebrate their goals. In the stands, many Iranian fans expressed their solidarity with the protest movement that has shaken the country for months.

Iran’s opening World Cup match on Monday against England was not just about football, but also about the political struggles plaguing the Islamic Republic. And for some Iranian women, who were barred from attending men’s soccer matches at home, it was a precious first chance to see the national team live.

“Do you know how painful it is to be the biggest football fan and never go to a game in 34 years?” said Afsani, a 34-year-old beekeeper from Tehran, who traveled to Qatar to see the men’s team for the first time. He said that he cried when he entered the Khalifa International Stadium.

Like other Iran fans, Afsani declined to give his last name for fear of government reprisals.

Iran lost 6-2 to a superior England team, but the result was not the most important thing for Mayram, a 35-year-old Tehran resident who also watched her first live soccer match. She was disappointed that the players did not show more open solidarity with the protests at home.

“You have girls being killed in the street,” she said. “It’s hard to say, but this is not a happy occasion. It’s really sad.”

Iran is competing in the World Cup amid a violent crackdown on a major women’s protest movement that has resulted in the deaths of at least 419 people, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.

The riots were sparked by the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s moral police. It first focused on the state-mandated hijab, or headscarf, for women, but has since morphed into one of the gravest threats to the Islamic Republic since the chaotic years that followed its founding.

Many Iran fans in Doha wore T-shirts and waved signs with the uprising’s mantra: “Woman, life, freedom.” Others wore T-shirts bearing the names of female protesters killed by Iranian security forces in recent weeks.

In the 22nd minute of the match, a reference to Amini’s age when she died, some fans chanted her name, though the refrain quickly faded out and was replaced with “Iran”.

Other fans dressed in conservative black chadors and hijabs the color of the Iranian flag cheered loudly for their national team. Many of them refused to talk about the political situation, saying that it was not relevant to them.

Before international matches, Iran’s players usually sing the national anthem with their right hand over their heart. They fell silent on Monday, arms around each other’s shoulders, prompting Iran’s state television to go from a close-up of the players’ faces to a wide shot of the pitch. During the match, the players did not celebrate their two goals, something that has become common in Iranian league matches since the protests began.

The question of whether to cheer for the national team has divided Iranians. Support for the Iranian team is now seen by many as a betrayal of the young men and women who have risked their lives in the streets.

“The protest movement has eclipsed soccer,” said Kamran, a linguistics professor who lives in the verdant northern province of Mazandaran. “I want Iran to lose these three games.”

Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have demonstrated on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the people of the country and not the ruling Shiite clerics. The team’s star striker Sardar Azmoun has spoken out about the online protests. He was on the bench during the match, much to the dismay of fans who said they were looking at him to make a protest gesture on the pitch. Two former soccer stars have even been arrested for endorsing the movement.

Ali Jassim, a 14-year-old Iranian fan, said he was sure the political crisis was affecting the team’s performance as England led 3-0 at half time.

“I don’t know how they can concentrate in a stadium full of so many people who want them to fail,” he said.

The Iranian government has tried to encourage citizens to support its team against Iran’s traditional enemies. Iran plays the United States on November 29, a contentious matchup that last occurred at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Observers note that the players are likely to face pressure from the government not to side with the protests. Iranian athletes have already come under enormous scrutiny. When Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without wearing her country’s mandatory headscarf, she became a lightning rod for the protest movement.

“At the end of the day, I want the players to achieve their dreams,” said Mariam, a 27-year-old sports fan and international relations student who traveled to Doha from Tehran to watch her first men’s soccer match live. “It’s not her fault that our society is so polarized.”

Mariam said a big win for women protesting at home would be the right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab.

“But after that, women will seek their right to be in stadiums,” she said.

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