Iran will begin their World Cup campaign on Monday in a politically positive light. While England’s players will focus on success, the Iranians will have more on their minds. Some argue that they should not exist at all.
The participation comes at a time of turmoil in Iran, where international protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September were met with a bloody response by the ruling government.
Amini died after being arrested by the state’s self-styled moral police for violating their Muslim dress code, her plight fueling long-standing anger and resentment over the suppression of women’s rights in the country.
At least 348 have been killed so far, according to human rights monitoring groups, while another 15,900 have been arrested. Earlier this week, a court in Tehran, the capital of Iran, handed down the first death sentence for a man arrested for his involvement.
Iran’s participation in the World Cup is seen as inconsistent by many in terms of the situation. There have also been calls to ban the competition. But the focus now turns to how their players will fare in Qatar amid the expected displays on the pitch.
“As you already know, football has a large following in Iran,” said Sina Saemian, an Iranian football journalist and contributor. Goli Bezan podcast, he says Sky Sports.
“The country loves football but when things like this happen, I think the interest and the crowd goes elsewhere. Now football has become a platform for people to express their concerns and make sure their voices are heard.”
Recent examples show the spread of protests.
Earlier this month, players from Esteghlal, one of Iran’s biggest clubs, refused to celebrate after winning the country’s Super Cup, instead sitting straight-eyed, with their hands folded in defiance, as they were presented with the trophy.
Iran’s national team players have said the same thing.
Saemian insists wearing black jackets over their kits before the game in Senegal was not a negotiated deal – “those jackets never had an Iranian badge to begin with,” he says – but many players refused to do so. singing the national anthem and many have started wearing symbolic black wristbands.
“They’ve used gestures to show their side, but I think the frustration of some sections of the opposition is that it’s not enough,” says Saemian. “It is not for me to say whether it is or not, but it is what they believe.
“He believes that players should be active in speaking directly in support of the opposition instead of using their hands as black ropes.”
Some players have already expressed their support for the government.
Midfielder Mehdi Torabi, who was seen signing the national anthem when others refused last week with Nicaragua, celebrated the goal of the Iranian club Persepolis, during one of the protests in the country in 2019, by revealing words under his shirt. which says: “The only way to save the world is to obey the leader.”
But those who want to speak out in support of the opposition on behalf of the government risk putting themselves and their loved ones at risk.
“You have someone like Ali Karimi, who played for the Iran national team and Bayern Munich in the 2000s,” says Saemian. “He has been very anti-government since day one.
“He has fled the country. His property, as I understand it, was seized. And I have no doubt that if he ever comes back into the country, he will be arrested.”
Others, like Hossein Mahini, who represented Iran at the 2014 World Cup, have already said so. The defender was recently arrested, according to Saemian, for airing views on social media in support of the protests.
Among the current Iranian players, Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun is the most famous to have spoken.
“Worst, I will be expelled from the national team, which is a small price to pay for even one color of Iranian women’s hair,” he wrote on Instagram, ignoring instructions from the Iranian FA not to comment publicly. protests. “Shame on you for killing people so easily… Long live the women of Iran.”
The comments put his place at the World Cup in doubt, with one report suggesting that Carlos Queiroz, back for a second term as Iran’s head coach, was pressured by Iran’s football federation not to select him.
Azmoun later retracted the post, apologizing before joining the club, but his comments were not the latest example of dissent from the country’s current player.
Saeed Piramoon, a player for Iran’s beach soccer team, celebrated his goal in Iran’s victory over Brazil at the Beach Soccer Cup earlier this month by shaving his head – interpreted as a sign of support for women’s rights and prompting backlash . from the football association in the country.
“People who did not follow the culture of professionals and sports … will be punished according to the law,” he said in a statement. “According to the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Olympic Code of Ethics and the rules of FIFA, political behavior must be avoided in sports.”
Queiroz, for his part, insisted that his players “have the right to protest” at the World Cup if they want, as long as they follow the rules of the competition and the “spirit of the game”, but it remains to be seen how far they will go. go – if they do.
“When I think about myself, I have the opportunity to have him in Manchester, I think we have to be a little careful what we ask of the people on the ground because we don’t have the whole picture. depending on what they are going through and the threats that will happen,” says Saemian.
“Some of them still choose to continue speaking, and they should be applauded and encouraged, but I think that we should not do things for them to speak, let them do ‘X’, ‘Y’. or ‘Z’, because we don’t have the whole picture.”
As for the former Iranian player, Karimi is not the only one who has come forward to protest.
This week, Ali Daei and Javad Nekounam, two of Iran’s most played players and national icons, rejected FIFA’s invitation to participate in the tournament and showed solidarity with the opposition.
It is increasingly likely that the government will restrict its views in favor of the protests and it could be an impossible borderline for the World Cup when protests are expected to take place inside and outside the Iranian stadium.
“So far in Iran, there has been a mix of not talking about the protests, or, when they find, finding something that denigrates them, and then running with it as a way to show the Iranian people in the country that people are protesting abroad. I don’t have their interests,” explains Saemian.
“I’m excited to see if the players aren’t singing the national anthem, how they’re responding. Does the game still reflect life as it goes on? the fans when this is happening?”
This is another reason why Saemian feels it is necessary for the national team to be present in the tournament.
Queiroz refused to answer questions about women’s rights in his recent press conference, but the spotlight is inevitable.
“The campaign to ban Iran from the World Cup has become a divisive issue for all Iranians, not just football fans,” says Saemian.
“I’m on the side that the team shouldn’t be banned, but I think it’s important that we don’t deny what the campaign stands for and the message they want to spread.
“This message is what we all want – to raise awareness and echo the voices of those in Iran.
“I personally think that by allowing the national team to take part in events like the World Cup, you are not only giving the players a place to show where they are standing, but you will see people protesting and making sure that almost all the TV stations broadcast it. “
So, as Iran begin their World Cup campaign with the goal of reaching the knockout stages for the first time in the country’s history, eyes and minds may be elsewhere, on the political battle that has become intertwined with sport.
Follow England vs Iran live on Sky Sports digital platforms from 9am on Monday; starting at 1 p.m