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It is the end of September and Iran is playing a friendly match against African champions Senegal in Vienna, Austria. When the referee blows the final whistle on a 1-1 draw, it’s a good result – but the mood is far from festive.
The players don’t seem happy, nor does the coaching staff. The Iranian fans outside the ground certainly aren’t.
Prevented from entering the stadium by local security employed by the Iranian authorities, they have still managed to make their voices heard via the megaphones and loudspeakers they have set up outside. In fact, they were so loud that Iranian 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 developed into the most significant challenge to the country’s Islamic republic in over 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 breaking their strict hijab rules.
Outside the hill they chanted, “Say her name: Mahsa Amini.”
Iran’s government doesn’t want people to hear that, especially at the World Cup. It is not clear how fans or players will behave at Monday’s opening game against England in Qatar – but everyone will be watching.
Mahsa Amini was a young Kurdish woman from the northwestern Iranian city of Saqqez. She died in a Tehran hospital on September 16, after spending three days in a coma.
She had been visiting the capital with 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.
There are reports that officers hit Amini’s head with a baton and smashed her head against one of their vehicles. Authorities have denied she was abused and said she suffered “sudden heart failure”. Her family has said she was healthy and well.
Amini’s death sparked outrage. When her funeral was held in Saqqez, women took off their hijabs and chanted against the government. Videos of the event were circulated on social media and reactions quickly spread across the country. Sports have provided a platform.
In October, Elnaz Rekabi, a female climber, competed at the Asian Championships in South Korea without wearing a hijab. Thousands met her at the airport on her return to welcome her back.
Before flying home, she posted an Instagram message saying she had competed without her hair covering “accidentally”. To many, the language used in her post made it seem like it was written under duress.
But football, as the country’s most popular sport, provides the biggest platform for those who want to show support for the protests. And big people have gotten involved.
Ali Karimi, a former Iranian soccer international who spent two seasons at Bayern Munich from 2005-2007, has become a figurehead for the opposition movement. Ali Daei, Iran’s record goalscorer and a legendary figure in the country, has also shown his support.
Ahead of the match against Senegal on September 27, some of Iran’s players posted messages on social media in support of the protests, despite being told not to. Sardar Azmoun, the team’s 27-year-old Bayer Leverkusen striker and perhaps their star player, has continued to post his support on Instagram – one of the few social media outlets allowed to operate in Iran.
For months, players have refused to celebrate goals scored in the Iranian league. When the ball crosses the line, the scorer usually lowers his hands, conveying a message that may be intended to remind those watching of 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.
State television broadcasters simply cut away from the team that has scored and show the players of the team that conceded instead.
Esteghlal FC players, one of 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 only attend the post-match ceremony if there were no fireworks and music. State TV also cut these images.
All Iranian league matches have been played behind closed doors since the protests began. Many believe the reason is that Iranian authorities believe fans could potentially become a security threat.
At the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup in Dubai in early November, Iran’s Saeed Piramoon imitated cutting her hair after scoring a goal – a gesture that has become a symbolic reference to the protests where some women have been filmed cutting their hair in public. He and his teammates beat Brazil in the final – and once again there was no celebration.
Iran’s basketball, beach soccer, volleyball and water polo teams have all chosen not to sing the national anthem at recent matches.
But the men’s national football team will undoubtedly be the most watched. In their last match before the World Cup – a friendly against Nicaragua played in Tehran behind closed doors – many players also refused to sing the national anthem, with the exception of two who had previously publicly supported the regime.
All this makes for an extraordinarily charged build-up to the World Cup for Iran and its football fans. What will happen if Iran’s players again refuse to sing the national anthem, or perform some other form of protest in light of the cameras in Qatar? What will they do if they score?
The draw itself is quite extraordinary as well.
Amid all the turbulence and turmoil at home, Iran will face the United States, England and Wales – countries the Iranian government counts among its arch-enemies.
In particular, facing the USA again will bring back memories of the immense national pride throughout Iran following their 2-1 victory in the 1998 World Cup group stage in France – their first ever victory in 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 could mean betraying the protesters who are risking their lives at home.