World Cup: Protests hang-out Iranian gamers forward of U.S. match

When Ramin Rezaeian scored his first World Cup aim to seal Iran’s victory over Wales final week — simply the nation’s second event win in 24 years — it ought to have been a second of pure pleasure.

But Rezaeian tweeted afterward that he didn’t know “whether to laugh or cry” — feeling trapped alongside together with his teammates between a authorities that views their success as a propaganda software and Iranian protesters mounting probably the most harmful problem to the nation’s theocratic rulers in 4 a long time.

These conflicting feelings might turn into much more difficult Tuesday when Iran meets the U.S. in a recreation that can decide which group strikes on in soccer’s premier event and which matches residence.

With america thought-about by many in Iran to be the “Great Satan” — a time period the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini made well-known amid the 1979 hostage disaster — the sport has taken on a political fervor not directed towards an American group for the reason that days of the Chilly Battle. On Monday, within the closing information convention earlier than the match, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams listened as a number of Iranian journalists took the microphone to make prolonged political statements earlier than asking the People to clarify the presence of U.S. warships within the Persian Gulf and the standing of race relations within the U.S.

Iran’s gamers have been caught in an identical no-win state of affairs since this event started.

A wave of widespread fury has despatched hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets in current months to protest the demise of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after being detained for carrying her hijab incorrectly. The demonstrations have divided the nation, and now each side are attempting to make use of the nationwide soccer group to additional their trigger.

Many gamers expressed help for the protests, solely to be silenced by the specter of retaliation from the federal government. However the protesters, who’ve seen greater than 440 individuals killed and greater than 18,000 arrested by authorities over the previous two months, see that silence as cowardice and are demanding the gamers choose a aspect and make an announcement for World Cup’s international TV viewers.

“These are brave people. And they expect these players, because they have the attention of the world, to do more,” mentioned Shirin Behzadi, who was arrested twice by the so-called morality police — the second time as a result of she was carrying a ebook — earlier than emigrating from Iran to the U.S. in 1984. “I understand they are going to be facing persecution if they do anything. They’re in a really difficult position. But also it doesn’t dismiss the anger that people have for them.”

Soccer has lengthy been greater than a sport in Iran. It’s an emblem that below the Islamic regime is commonly open to interpretation, mentioned Kevan Harris, an affiliate professor of sociology at UCLA and writer of “A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran.” That’s been compounded by the natural nature of the protest motion.

“Because this ongoing movement is so charged with nationalist symbols and slogans, as is the counterpropaganda espoused by the government itself, football was inevitably going to be bound up in the politics of it no matter what the team did,” he mentioned.

Iranians protest in Tehran over the demise of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September.

(Related Press)

Some activists sympathetic to the protesters wished to ban Iran from the World Cup and change it with Ukraine, saying the nationwide group represented a corrupt authorities. Supporters of the Islamic regime, in the meantime, view the group the identical means they see the nation’s overseas coverage; as a software to venture Iran’s energy and values internationally.

There may be no approach to bridge such a large chasm, leaving the gamers to stroll a tightrope over it.

Earlier than their first recreation in Qatar, they stood at consideration, arms draped over each other’s shoulders, however didn’t sing the nationwide anthem. After England gained that recreation 6-2, Yahya Golmohammadi, a former nationwide group captain, tweeted the consequence was “God’s punishment.”

When the gamers sang the anthem earlier than Iran’s second recreation, a 2-0 win over Wales, riot police celebrated whilst they engaged in pitched road battles with protesters.

Iran’s inner politics are sometimes as fractious as its worldwide dealings, and sports activities — particularly soccer — was by no means immune. However till this month, the nationwide group was nonetheless seen as one thing of an icon: Iranians referred to their group because the “Brazil of Asia,” evaluating their prowess to the perennial South America soccer superpower.

Debris is on fire in the streets of Tehran, Iran, during a protest.

Iranians protests within the streets of Tehran on Oct. 27.

(Related Press)

In January, when Crew Melli — Farsi for nationwide group — certified for the World Cup, lots of of 1000’s flooded the streets in celebration.

That each one modified with the protests, with the group drawing ire after its members visited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi earlier than leaving for Qatar, with footage of gamers Roozbeh Cheshmi and Alireza Beiranvand bowing to Raisi going viral on social media.

On the streets, protesters burned Crew Melli banners, one thing that may have been nearly unthinkable just a few weeks earlier than. Calls unfold for boycotting the group — together with from Ali Daei, the second-highest aim scorer in worldwide soccer historical past, who needed to flip down FIFA’s invitation to attend the video games in Qatar after Iran revoked his passport. Ali Karimi, one other former soccer star, was one of many first celebrities to help the protest motion and often tweeted towards Crew Melli.

A girl holds up her country's flag during a street celebration in Tehran after Iran's victory over Wales.

A woman holds up her nation’s flag throughout a road celebration in Tehran after Iran’s victory over Wales within the World Cup on Friday.

(Vahid Salemi / Related Press)

The game of soccer, regardless of the nationwide group’s independence, has a protracted historical past of inspiring girls’s protest actions in Iran. Earlier than the 1979 revolution, girls had been allowed to attend males’s soccer matches. However that modified below the Islamic Republic.

Within the mid-2000s, a bunch of feminine activists began the White Scarves Marketing campaign, named after the headscarves they wore, in an try to rally the general public and alter the legislation banning them from the stadiums. The marketing campaign was largely unsuccessful. Then in 2019, a fan named Sahar Khodayari set herself on hearth in entrance of the Revolutionary Courtroom of Tehran after being handed a potential sentence of six months in jail for having tried to enter a stadium.

Khodayari died from her accidents, and amid a public outcry and stress from FIFA, soccer’s international governing physique, the ban was lifted.

FILE - Branding is displayed near the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center, in Doha, Qatar, March 31, 2022

⚽ 2022 Qatar World Cup

Soccer “is such a great indicator of what’s happening in the country,” mentioned Shima Oliaee, a journalist and first-generation Iranian-American whose ESPN podcast collection “Pink Card” focuses on the ladies who fought for the appropriate to attend soccer video games in Iran. “My mother’s great memories there, her way of talking about where she came from, was all wrapped up in soccer stories.”

However, she added, “the same way that the sport can unite the people, it can also distract.”

Or divide. Though Iran is only a win away from advancing to the World Cup knockout stage for the primary time for the reason that Islamic revolution, the fan base stays at odds over what it might imply, interviews with individuals in Tehran, Qatar and the U.S. counsel.

“There’s no honor in this,” Farideh, a 61-year-old mom of 4 who gave solely her first identify for causes of security, mentioned of any success the group has on the event. “Many innocent people have been killed. Our children are suffering: Team Melli shouldn’t have honored the Islamic Republic’s flag.”

However others say boycotting the nationwide squad might antagonize potential protest motion supporters.

“We are all opposed to the brutalities carried out on the streets, but the team belongs to all of us, we pay for it with our own money,” mentioned Amir, a 45-year-old banker in Tehran. “They showed their support by not singing the anthem and wearing black wrist bands.”

Thousands of Iranian Americans and others march during a freedom rally for Iran in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 22.

1000’s of Iranian People and others march throughout a freedom rally for Iran in downtown Los Angeles on Oct. 22.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Occasions)

Mojtaba Najafi, a social activist and college lecturer in Iran, agreed. Although he was no authorities supporter, he mentioned, he thinks the boycott is a foreign-led initiative doomed to backfire.

“Team Melli is too deeply integrated into Iranian life. It was a mistake for the opposition to fall for this,” he mentioned. “Team Melli’s win could turn out to be the strongest kind of anti-government protest.”

Behzadi, who burdened she is just not an activist, mentioned viewing the protests — or the soccer — merely in political phrases misses the purpose.

“Listen, I’m a fan. We watch it. We love it,” mentioned Behzadi, who runs her personal consulting enterprise. “But at the end of the day this is not politics. It’s human beings dying for just wanting to have their voices heard. So whatever happens, whether they win or lose, it’s already taken the joy out of this game.”

This text consists of further Los Angeles Occasions reporting from Tehran.