Iran's World Cup team caught in a political storm
England beat Iran 6-2 in their opening World Cup game on Monday, though when it came to protests, it is the team that lost on the pitch who will live long in the memory.
It had been expected that Harry Kane, the captain of the Three Lions, and a number of other European stars, would wear ‘One Love’ armbands in a gesture of support for inclusivity and diversity when playing in Qatar.
The host nation has been criticised by some sections of the western media for its laws on homosexuality – it is illegal in the country - but in the face of possible yellow cards from world governing body FIFA, England, and a number of other European nations, backed down.
Nothing of that kind could be said about Iran. Iran’s players took their opportunity to communicate their feelings on the biggest sporting stage of all, with hundreds of millions watching around the world.
"Football does not operate in a vacuum, especially in a country that loves the sport as much as Iran and especially one in which the beautiful game is so connected with the political sphere"
What should have been the biggest football moment of the players’ lives became something else. As the national anthems sounded prior to kick-off at the Khalifa International Stadium, the players in red bowed heads, put arms around shoulders, and then did not sing. It was a powerful moment.
It could only be interpreted as a gesture of support and solidarity for the protesters back home. And if there was any doubt, there were fans crying in the stands and booing the anthem, waving flags with the words ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ emblazoned.
Fans also chanted the name of Ali Karimi, a former football star who has been so outspoken against the ruling regime that he had to leave the country and, according to reports, only just escaped a kidnapping attempt that aimed to take him back to Tehran.
Ever since Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died in police custody in September after being arrested for not wearing a headscarf in the correct manner, there have been widespread protests up and down the country of 80 million.
Women and schoolgirls have often been leaders and their actions have been answered brutally by authorities. According to estimates from various human rights groups, at least 378 people have been killed so far.
Football does not operate in a vacuum, especially in a country that loves the sport as much as Iran and especially one in which the beautiful game is so connected with the political sphere – all clubs are owned, directly or not, by the state.
Since the protests began, all domestic football games have been closed to the public, with authorities trying to limit large gatherings.
According to reports, players in the Iranian league have been refusing to celebrate goals for months now, apparently to draw attention to protests in the country.
Players from one of Iran’s top teams, Esteghlal FC, even decided not to celebrate after winning the Super Cup in early November. They said they would only participate in the post-match ceremony if there was no music or fireworks.
It was inevitable then that players from the national team would get caught up in it all, especially with huge World Cup games against England and the United States.
Just days after the protests started, Iran defeated Uruguay in a warm-up in Vienna. It was one of Team Melli’s best results for years, coming up against strong international opposition and under Carlos Queiroz who had returned for a second spell as coach just weeks previously.
"Their gestures on Monday in Qatar spoke louder than words and will live long in the memory of this World Cup, long after Iran have gone home, whatever their reception in Tehran"
Yet there was strident criticism on social media at home directed at the players who, it was felt, did not acknowledge what was going on at home and celebrated the goal with too much delight and enthusiasm. A few days later, there was a noticeable solemnity when the team faced Senegal.
The team was also criticised on social media for meeting President Ebrahim Raisi before heading off to Qatar, with several players lambasted for bowing in front of the hardline cleric.
To add to this much-scrutinised build-up, Ali Daei, Iran's record goal scorer and a national footballing legend, last week again expressed his support for the protests and said he would not travel to Qatar in solidarity with the demonstrators.
All of this led to widespread speculation as to what would happen in Qatar. There were rumours, denied by Queiroz, that the squad announcement had been delayed as there was pressure from above to omit Sardar Azmoun, a star striker who had previously been vocal in his support of the protesters.
After arriving in Qatar, the team came under the gaze of the British media, who asked so many questions about protests back home and their support for what was going on that some players openly wondered whether the press pack from London were trying to destabilise the team.
Just before the game, captain Ehsan Hajsafi made clear how many in the team felt.
"I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran," he said. “They should know that we are with them, we support them and we sympathise with them. We cannot deny the conditions - the conditions in my country are not good and the players know it also. We are here but it does not mean that we should not be their voice, or we must not respect them.”
And then, game day. Iran collapsed to a 6-2 defeat. It is impossible to know how much the situation at home affected the players but given all the questions from foreign media and social media posts back home, it must have played a part. Queiroz was in no doubt that it had a major effect and criticised fans who, he felt, did not support the players.
“Those who come to disturb the team with issues that are not only about football opinions are not welcome,” said Queiroz. “They are just simple football boys. They have one dream, to play football. It is not their fault that the World Cup happens at the moment. The moral is: let the kids play the game. You don't know what these kids have been living the last days just because they want to express themselves as players. Whatever they do or say, they want to kill them.”
There has been much debate among Iranian fans online. Some have seen such Queiroz’s comments as little more than excuses from a coach who is smarting from a severe defeat in which he made questionable selection and tactical decisions.
There has also been support from those who ask why people would travel to a foreign country and then boo their national team in one of the biggest games in Iran’s history.
What is clear to see, however, is the bravery of the Iranian players. As has been the case with Karimi, there can be clear consequences for those who speak out against the regime.
Their gestures on Monday in Qatar spoke louder than words and will live long in the memory of this World Cup, long after Iran have gone home, whatever their reception in Tehran.
John Duerden has covered Asian sport for over 20 years for The Guardian, Associated Press, ESPN, BBC, New York Times, as well as various Asian media. He is also the author of four books.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnnyduerden