It’s late September and Iran is playing a friendly against African champions Senegal in Vienna, Austria. When the referee blew the final whistle in a 1-1 draw, it was a good result – but the mood was far from celebratory.
The players don’t seem happy, and neither does the coaching staff. Off the field Iranian players are certainly not.
Entry into the stadium was prevented by local guards hired by the Iranian authorities, who still managed to make their voices heard through megaphones and loudspeakers set up outside. In fact they were so loud that Iranian state television broadcast the game in silence.
Since mid-September, life in Iran has been dominated by a wave of dramatic anti-government protests that have evolved into the most significant challenge to the country’s Islamic republic in more than a decade.
The protests were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating their strict hijab rules.
Outside the arena they were chanting: “Say her name: Mahsa Amini.”
The Iranian government doesn’t want people to hear that, especially not during the World Cup. It’s unclear how fans or players will fare in Monday’s opener against England in Qatar – but all will be watching.
Mahsa Amini is a young Kurdish woman from Sakkez, a city in northwestern Iran. After being in a coma for three days, she died on September 16 in a Tehran hospital.
She was visiting the capital with her family when she was arrested by Iran’s morality police, who accused her of violating the law requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab and their hands and feet in loose clothing.
The officers reportedly hit Amini on the head with a baton and rammed his head into one of their vehicles. Authorities have denied molesting her and said she suffered a “sudden heart attack.” Her family has said she is fit and healthy.
Amini’s death sparked outrage. When her funeral was held in Saqez, women took off their hijabs and chanted against the government. Videos of the incident circulated on social media and the reaction spread rapidly across the country. The game provides a platform.
In October, climber Elnas Rekabi competed in the Asian Championships in South Korea without a hijab. Thousands met her at the airport on her return to welcome her.
Before flying home, she posted an Instagram message saying she “recklessly” competed without covering her hair. To many, the language used in her post seemed forced.
But football, as the country’s most popular sport, provides the biggest platform for those willing to support the protests. And the main characters are involved.
Ali Karimi, a former Iranian football international who spent two seasons at Bayern Munich between 2005-2007, has become the head of the opposition movement. Iran’s record goal scorer and a popular figure in the country, Ali Dei, has also expressed his support.
Ahead of the September 27 tournament against Senegal, some of Iran’s players have posted social media messages in support of the protests, but have been told not to. Sardar Azmoun, the team’s 27-year-old Bayer Leverkusen striker and perhaps their star player, has continued to post his support on Instagram, one of the few social media networks allowed to operate in Iran.
For months, players have refused to celebrate goals scored in the Iranian league. After the ball crosses the boundary, the scorer usually brings his arms down, sometimes conveying a message that he intends to remind the viewers of what is happening in the country. The Human Rights Activists News Agency estimates that 15,800 people have been detained and 341 have died in protests. It has also been reported that 39 security personnel have died.
State television broadcasters removed the team that scored and instead showed players from the team that conceded.
Esteghlal FC players, one of Iran’s two most-followed sports clubs, chose not to celebrate when they won the Super Cup two weeks ago. They told the organizers that they would attend the post-race event only if there were no fireworks and music. State TV also cut the pictures short.
All Iranian league matches have been played behind closed doors since the protests began. Many believe Iranian authorities believe the fans could pose a security threat.
At the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup in Dubai in early November, Iran’s Saeed Piramoun mimed cutting his hair after scoring a goal – which has become a symbolic reference to the protests, where some women have been filmed cutting their hair in public. He and his teammates beat Brazil in the final and once again there were no celebrations.
Iran’s basketball, beach soccer, volleyball and water polo teams have all opted not to sing the national anthem in recent matches.
But there is no doubt that the men’s national soccer team will be more widely watched. In their final match before the World Cup – a friendly against Nicaragua behind closed doors in Tehran – most players also refused to sing the national anthem, except for two who had previously publicly supported the regime.
All this has given Iran and its football fans an extraordinary charge for the World Cup. What if Iran’s players refuse to sing the national anthem again or do some other kind of protest in front of the cameras in Qatar? What will they do if they score?
The draw is also very unusual.
Amidst all the turmoil and upheaval, Iran will face America, England and Wales – countries that the Iranian government counts among its arch-enemies.
Meeting the USA will bring back memories of the immense national pride felt throughout Iran after they won 2-1 in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup in France – their first win of the tournament.
How will Iranian fans react to a similar result in Qatar? Many are torn. They are not sure if cheering for the team means betraying the protestors who are risking their lives back home.