‘Football is meaningless when children are being killed’

Iranian protests have spread into the stands and onto the pitch during the 2022 World Cup, as supporters – and the Iranian players – have used the event to speak out for and against the country’s leadership. FRANCE 24 meets Iranian football fans in Qatar.

“In Iran, it’s impossible to separate politics and football,” said Ali Houman, a 53-year-old engineer who traveled to Qatar from Canada to watch Iran’s matches during the 2022 World Cup. Speaking outside Ahmed Bin Ali stadium prior to a game that saw Iran secure a victory over Wales, Houman carried an Iranian flag with a hole cut in the middle removing the symbol of the Islamic Republic.

National protests against Iranian leadership have gathered peace since early September when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing a hijab. Protests sparked by outrage over her death have evolved into widespread revolt against the regime.

In Qatar, Houman wanted to show his own support for the protest movement, but was surprised to see players on the Iranian team doing the same. During their opening match against England, Iran’s players remained silent during the national anthem, the lyrics of which glorify the Islamic revolution of 1979.

“I was expecting to boo the players but that changed my mind; I felt proud of them,” Houman said. “There’s no doubt that they’ll be punished for it, but it was a powerful gesture.”

Ali Houman and his truncated flag of Iran. © Romain Houeix, France 24

‘A difficult position’

Yet the Iranian players chose to sing the national anthem prior to their second match against Wales, drawing vocal disappointment from their supporters in the stands.

The team itself is divided. Star forward Sardar Azmoun has spoken in support of protesters multiple times and captain Ehsan Hajsafi said conditions in Iran are “not right”. Two substitutes, Mehdi Torabi and Vahid Amiri, are known to support Iran’s current leadership.

Meanwhile, team manager Carlos Queiroz has advocated for the players to be allowed to focus on their sport. Responding to journalists who asked him political questions during a World Cup press conference, he said! “Let the boys play football. It’s not fair to bring them to this World Cup and ask them about things that are not their responsibility.”

Whether they speak out or remain silent, Iran’s players have been under intense scrutiny since the tournament began. Even their goal celebrations have been dissected and criticized for political meaning. “The team’s players are in a difficult position,” said Houman, outside the stadium. “Whatever they do, they’ll get criticized for doing too much or not enough.

Publicly criticizing the Iranian leadership also comes with great personal risk. The day before the Iran-Wales match, news emerged of the arrest of Voria Ghafouri – an Iranian player with 28 international caps. Four months previously Ghafouri was forced to leave his club Esteghlal, where he was captain, due to his recurrent criticism of Iranian leaders.

‘Players must do more’

Nearing the security gates to Ahmed Bin Ali stadium, Aran Gabdari was proudly holding a banner emblazoned with one of the Iranian protest slogans: “Women, life, freedom, #MahsaAmini”.

“This slogan is everything we are deprived of in Iran. That’s why we want a revolution,” said the 31-year-old data analyst. “The point of football is to have a good time, but it’s meaningless when adults and children are being killed in Iran.”

“Women Life Freedom” has been the slogan of protests in Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini, shortly after she was arrested by the police. © Romain Houeix, France 24

Since the start of the protest movement in Iran 416 people, including 51 children have died, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights. “Not singing the national anthem isn’t enough, players must do more,” Gabdari said. “But we’re not here for them, we don’t care whether they win or lose. We’re here to support the movement.”

Gabdari had traveled to the tournament from the US, so he faced few risks from speaking out. Not so for his friends who had traveled from Iran. Despite supporting the protest movement, none were willing to speak to FRANCE 24 out of fear of not being able to return home.

In Qatar, the atmosphere between Iranian supporters was tense. As more football fans arrived outside the stadium, some pulled aside Iranians who were talking to journalists, surrounded them, and prevented them from continuing by shouting, singing and blasting foghorns. Others started filming the faces of those being interviewed on their smartphones.

Insults started being thrown around – one newcomer accused a protest supporter of not even being Iranian under his white, red and green face paint. He shouted back that they were “fake supporters, paid by the regime to stop people talking about protests during the World Cup”. As scuffles broke out, flags and T-shirts were torn apart, while stadium security staff watched without intervening.

Only one football fan who was obviously against the protests agreed to be interviewed. “It makes no sense, no one should protest overseas about an internal problem in Iran,” he said. “We are here to support our team. We are proud of them, they qualified for the World Cup and we want them to win.”

He joined his group of friends, chanting the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

‘A voice for those being silenced’

Away from the scuffles, US-Iranian Nika lifted up her Brazil shirt to show the Mahsa Amini T-shirt she was wearing underneath. She decided to keep a low profile outside the stadium after being sent threatening messages when she spoke out on social media during the Iran-England match.

The engineer from California also chose to hide her T-shirt out of fear it would be confiscated by security officers. FIFA rules allow World Cup security forces to confiscate any items “containing world or images with political messages that are offensive or discriminatory”. According to AFP photographers at least one group of fans has had an Iranian flag with protest slogans confiscated.

Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium security confiscates flag from Iranian protesters.
Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium security confiscates flag from Iranian protesters. © Giuseppe Cacace, AFP

Nika wanted to attend the World Cup in Qatar so that it wasn’t dominated by football fans who support the Iranian regime. “A lot of people didn’t come to support the protest movement, and the regime capitalized on that by sending its own supporters here,” she said. “We came hoping to be stronger and make more noise than them.”

It is the first time that Nika has watched football matches live, in a stadium. “The World Cup is the biggest sports event in the world. It could be a huge political platform. We are here to be the voice of those in Iran who are being silenced.”

Nika and Hossein came from the United States to support the protesters in their country of origin, Iran
Nika and Hossein came from the United States to support the protesters in their country of origin, Iran © Cedric Ferreira, France 24

This article was translated from the original in French.

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