When Iran takes the pitch against England for its opening game of the World Cup on Monday, it will be without the support of many of the team members’ countrymen and women, even some who have travelled to Qatar to watch the tournament.
Since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in September over allegations of wearing the hijab improperly, Iran has been rocked by protests and an often brutal crackdown by the Iranian authorities. At times, the Islamic Republic has felt on the edge of collapse, such is the level of deep-seated rage that has been unleashed.
The Globe and Mail spoke to Iranians in Qatar and around the world, all of whom expressed discomfort or even anger at the idea of supporting their country in the World Cup, feeling that to do so would be to offer tacit approval of the government that the members of Iran’s soccer team represent.
“We are here to show what is happening in Iran,” said Maria, who had travelled to Doha with several other Iranians. The Globe is only using her first name because she fears reprisals for speaking out publicly against the Islamic Republic. “I will only support the national team if they will not sing the national anthem.”
During a warm-up game against Nicaragua, several players did indeed stand silent, but others have been photographed shaking hands with senior regime officials or wearing pro-government shirts. Despite this, however, no players could be seen singing on Monday, perhaps influenced by the intense pressure from fans in the run up.
At a news conference in Doha the day before, team captain Ehsan Hajsafi voiced concern about the current crisis in Iran, saying “conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.
“We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice,” he said. “I hope conditions change as to the expectations of the people.”
But for some Iranians, there is nothing the team can do – short of refusing to play – that will be enough to justify acting on behalf of a government that is brutally suppressing its people.
“This team does not represent the Iranian people, it represents the Islamic Republic,” said Canadian-Iranian Golsa Golestaneh. “They’re helping the government sports-wash itself and appear as if we are just like a regular, ordinary country.”
Ms. Golestaneh said she lost hope the soccer team could represent Iranian women after the death of Sahar Khodayari in September, 2019. The 29-year-old set herself on fire after she was told she faced six months in prison for sneaking into a soccer match by dressing as a man.
“Most of the soccer team, they didn’t do anything, they didn’t support her or Iranian women in any way,” Ms. Golestaneh said.
Following Ms. Khodayari’s death, Iranian authorities faced intense pressure, including from FIFA, to drop the ban on women attending soccer matches. Some were allowed to attend a game between Iran and Cambodia later that year for the first time in decades, an achievement repeatedly touted by FIFA president Gianni Infantino during a controversial news conference in Doha on Saturday.
But for Maria, the Iranian fan in Doha, this was just a publicity stunt for the regime. “They allowed women in stadiums once or twice to appease FIFA, so they wouldn’t get kicked out of the World Cup,” she said.
Women trying to attend a game in March this year were refused entry and pepper sprayed by police, and other women have reported problems entering various games, despite the authorities’ claims to have lifted the ban.
Ms. Golestaneh said that even if players were not willing to speak out about women being able to attend matches, they should have been spurred to action by the execution of a fellow sportsman, wrestler Navid Afkari in 2020.
Mr. Afkari was sentenced to death for, among other things, taking part in anti-government protests, amid credible reports he was tortured in custody. Multiple sports bodies, including the International Olympic Committee, had called for his release.
“Many of us feel like athletes in Iran should have responded very seriously after that and stop representing this government or stop obeying this government,” Ms. Golestaneh said.
Britain-based activist Elika Ashoori said she was impressed by the way some female athletes such as Elnaz Rekabi and the country’s basketball team have shown apparent solidarity with protests back home by removing their hijabs at various sporting events before the World Cup. She said several male soccer players – none of whom are on the squad in Qatar – had also shown “bravery and courage” in speaking out in support of protests.
“The national football team’s silence might be due to fear, but in the face of so much courage shown by other public figures within Iran who have so much to lose, some of the actions of the team members have been, in my opinion, tone deaf and insensitive, considering the magnitude of football’s importance and influence in the country,” Ms. Ashoori said.
She was hopeful that the team “might yet surprise the people of Iran,” but said that for many Iranians, their feeling toward the national side “has soured.”
“Having said that, I also believe in light of Qatar’s backing of the Islamic Republic and by condemning any potential protests, the public and athletes are in a perilous situation,” she said.
Ms. Golestaneh said players should refuse to play, but also that soccer’s governing authorities should have taken the decision out of their hands, echoing comments by former Iran goalkeeper Sosha Makani.
“It’s the Islamic Republic’s team not the Iranian people’s team,” Mr. Makani said earlier this year. “FIFA should ban it.”
Russia was expelled from the tournament over the war in Ukraine, Ms. Golestaneh said, “but a state that is committing crimes, committing a massacre against its own people is legitimized by FIFA.”
Ram Joubin, president of the Vancouver-based Alliance of Iranian Canadians, said most Iranians he knows are boycotting the team.
“People feel this is not the year for them to support the national team – the revolution is more important,” he said.
On the bright side, Mr. Joubin said Iranian-Canadians can at least root for the Canadian national side, after it qualified for the tournament for the first time since 1986.
With files from Salmaan Farooqui in Vancouver and Cathal Kelly in Doha, Qatar