PHOTO: Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
Iran’s protest movement made itself felt during the hotly anticipated opening match against England in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, with people holding signs carrying political slogans, and the Iranian team staying silent for the national anthem.Iranian fans in the stands in Doha showed overwhelming support for the women-led protests inside the country, with videos showing them wearing the national colours and holding signs saying: “Woman, life, freedom” – the protest movement’s rallying cry.
While Iranian national team players remained silent as the anthem played, while crowds sang anti-government victory songs and booed. The protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, who was allegedly beaten to death by police after she was accused of not wearing her hijab properly, have roiled the country since September despite harsh crackdown and arrests. The regime blames ‘foreign hands’ for orchestrating the angry mass protests that started against the restrictive head-covering laws for women. Since the beginning of the protests, at least 378 people have been killed by security forces, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights, including 47 children.
Women are not allowed to enter football stadiums in Iran, but every time the national team qualifies for an international tournament, Iranians – mainly from the diaspora – flock to stadiums to show support for one of their home country’s most popular sports. Iranian athletes competing in international tournaments enjoy a special status both inside and outside the country, despite the government’s efforts to assert itself on all sporting events and institutions. Professional athletes have found ways to circumvent the regime’s control in Tehran, mainly through associations that require a certain level of autonomy to be eligible for global and regional sports tournaments.
Professional footballers in Iran have a long history of holding critical positions against the government in Tehran. They have managed to use their celebrity status to voice their concerns during the crisis, most notably Ali Karimi, the Iranian national football icon. The Iranian team ended up losing the match 6-2 to England.