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

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Iranians protesting against the country's government gather in Vienna in front of the stadium where Iran is playing against Senegal
Iran is England’s first opponent at the World Cup
Host: Catarrh Dates: November 20 – December 18 Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. TV listings by dayFull coverage details

It’s late September and Iran is playing a friendly against African champions Senegal in Vienna, Austria. When the referee blows the final score at 1-1, it’s a good result – but the mood is far from celebratory.

The players don’t seem happy, and neither does the coaching staff. The Iranian fans off the field certainly didn’t.

Prevented from entering the stadium by local security hired by the Iranian authorities, they still managed to make their voices heard through megaphones and loudspeakers they set up outside. In fact, they were so loud that Iran’s state TV broadcast the match without sound.

Since mid-September, life in Iran 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 more than a decade.

The protests were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman who was detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating their strict hijab-wearing rules.

Outside the field they sang: “Say her name: Mahsa Amini.”

The Iranian government doesn’t want people to hear that, especially not at the World Cup. It’s not clear how the fans or players will behave in Monday’s opener against England in Qatar – but everyone will be watching.

Short presentation gray line

Mahsa Amini was a young Kurdish woman from the city of Saqqez in northwestern Iran. She died in a Tehran hospital on September 16, after spending three days in a coma.

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

There are reports that the police beat Amina on the head with a baton and slammed her head against one of their vehicles. Authorities denied she had been abused and said she had suffered “sudden heart failure.” Her family said she was fit and healthy.

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 circulated on social media, and the reaction quickly spread across the country. Sports provided a platform.

In October, Elnaz Rekabi, a climber, competed at the Asian Championships in South Korea without a hijab. Thousands met her at the airport on her way back to welcome her.

Before flying home, she posted a message on Instagram saying she had competed without a hair covering “unintentionally”. To many, the language used in her post appeared to be written under duress.

But football provides the biggest platform for those who want to show support for the protests, as the most popular sport in the country. And big figures got involved.

Ali Karimi, a former Iranian soccer player who spent two seasons at Bayern Munich from 2005 to 2007, has become a figurehead of the opposition movement. Ali Daei, Iran’s record goalscorer and a legendary figure in the country, also expressed his support.

In the run-up to the game 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, Bayer Leverkusen’s 27-year-old striker and perhaps their star, continued to post his support on Instagram – one of the few social media networks allowed to operate in Iran.

For months, players have refused to celebrate goals scored in the Iranian league. After the ball crosses the line, the scorer usually lowers his hands, sending the message that this may be intended to remind those watching what is happening in the country. The Human Rights Fighters News Agency estimates that 15,800 people were detained during the protests, and 341 people were killed. He also reported the death of 39 security personnel.

State TV broadcasters simply cut out the team that scored the goal, showing instead the players of the team that conceded the goal.

The players of Esteghlal FC, one of the 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 participate in the post-match ceremony only if there were no fireworks or music. State TV shortened those pictures as well.

All matches of the Iranian league have been played behind closed doors since the beginning of the protests. Many believe the reason is that Iranian authorities believe the fans could potentially become a security threat.

Iranian beach soccer player Saeed Piramoon pretends to get a haircut
Piramoon’s gesture echoes 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 Piramoon mimed cutting his hair after scoring a goal – a gesture that has become a symbolic reference to protests in which some women have been filmed cutting their hair in public. He and his team-mates beat Brazil in the final – and again there was no celebration.

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

But the men’s football team will undoubtedly be the most noticeable. In their final 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 for an extraordinarily tense World Cup build-up for Iran and its football fans. What will happen if the Iranian players refuse to sing the national anthem again or stage some other protest in front of the cameras in Qatar? What will they do if they score?

The draw itself is extraordinary.

Amidst all the turbulence and turmoil at home, Iran will face the USA, England and Wales – countries that the Iranian government counts among its worst enemies.

The reunion with the USA will especially recall the immense national pride felt throughout Iran following their 2-1 victory in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup in France – their first win at the tournament.

How would Iran fans react to a similar result in Qatar? Many feel torn. They are not sure if cheering for the national team can mean betraying those protesters who are risking their lives at home.

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Also Read :  Israeli-Palestinian conflict catches up with Qatar World Cup

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