Some Iranian Football Fans Are Celebrating Being Kicked Out of the World Cup

Iran's 1-0 loss to the USA triggered celebratory fireworks back home, as fans in Qatar tell VICE World News why they can't get behind the men's football team while protests in Iran are being crushed.
iran world cup pr
PHOTO: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

Some Iranian football fans have said that their 1-0 loss to the USA was no bad thing, after turning against their team at the World Cup in Qatar in light of the crackdown on anti-government protesters back home.

Fans in Qatar told VICE World News they were conflicted about cheering for their team while the regime cracked down on protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September. 

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Video coming out of Iran on Tuesday night appeared to show people celebrating their home team losing – seeing it as a loss not for themselves, but for the regime. 

“Football is one of the only things about Iran that come from the people, but the regime wants to take that away from us. They don’t even like football. Everyone knows that in Iran,” said an Iranian football fan in Qatar, who withheld her name for fear of reprisals from Iranian authorities. 

Iranian football fans who travel to Doha to watch their national men’s team talking to VICE World News said they had “mixed feelings” about the team. 

In Qatar, despite a serious crackdown on football fans under the excuse of a ban on political messaging during the tournament by organisers, people managed to sneak in flags and T-shirts. 

“It hasn’t been a great experience because, as an Iranian, I was very excited about the national team and got tickets early this year,” said a young Iranian woman who travelled to Doha with her family to watch the Iran matches. She also asked to withhold her name for security reasons.

“But then the protests started, football became a second thought really, and we decided to show support for our people protesting from the stands.” 

Security has been reminiscent of the Iranian regime, she added. “Unfortunately, the security has not been very friendly because Qataris are like the regime in Tehran, and the whole thing feels like they are forcing their culture on everyone. It is not very much different to what people are protesting against in Iran, to be honest,” she told VICE World News via WhatsApp call.

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Other Iranian fans, mainly people from the diaspora, were pictured waving flags from before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Qatari security staff were filmed arguing with fans because of flags and had messages written on their T-shirts that referred to the ongoing protests in Iran. 

“Besides all the political drama around the national team for not showing a strong position on the protests, I still rooted for our boys, and I hope one day, we’ll have an Iranian football team that only needs to play a football game,” said another Iranian fan in Doha, who also spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals.

The Iranian team was playing under immense pressure, with the spectre of the protests looming over each match. At the start of the first game, the players did not sing the Islamic Republic’s national anthem in what was believed to be an act of defiance against the regime. 

Since the start of the tournament, Iranian stands became a stage for two rival groups – one that came to show support for the protests, and another that supported the government in Tehran. 

Tensions have run high between the two groups. The one that supports the protests chanted: “Woman, life freedom,” the women-led protest slogan that has become the rallying cry for anti-regime activists. Sometimes, the rivalry boiled over into physical altercations. 

Iranians often joke about the Islamic republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini’s distaste for football. The ruling mullahs have shown little interest in the sport, but the Iranian national team has performed well over the past decade, and qualified for their third consecutive World Cup tournament. This success is built on a legacy of a generation of Iranian professional footballers, the culture around the game that is most associated with the ordinary Iranian people. 

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The superstars who make it to the national team are adored by Iranians living at home and abroad. Some have openly stood by the women and youth-led protests in Iran, like Voria Ghafouri, a former national team player who was arrested earlier this month before being released on bail.

The protests have continued, with over 400 people killed and more injured and arrested. The government in Tehran claims foreign countries such as the US and Israel are behind the mass unrest over the past two months.

Iran has a practical ban on women attending football matches, but Iranian women flock to the stadiums when the team plays abroad. 

Iran needed at least a draw to progress to the knockout stages of this World Cup, but the more dynamic US team snatched victory and sent the Iranian team home. 

Iran’s national team coach, the Portuguese manager, Carlos Queiroz, said: “Football gods bless those who score goals, and unfortunately, we didn’t score.” 

The coach praised his group of players for their resilience and said that the team gained the “respect of the whole world” during a press conference after the losing game on Tuesday night.