Football divides families around the world, but the national team is usually a source of unity, especially during the World Cup.
This is not the case in Iran. Despite being a football-loving nation, the team’s participation in the tournament in Qatar has deepened cleavages in society between the regime and its opponents, who have been staging large anti-government protests in cities across the country for more than two years. month.
Opposition supporters see the team – one of the best in the country and ranked 20th in the world – as traitors for playing under the Islamic Republic flag and meeting President Ebrahim Raisi before they left for Doha. Footage showed players bowing to the hardline politician.
Soheila, a 58-year-old retired nurse in Tehran who supports anti-regime protests, wants Iran to lose badly, even when it faces its government’s nemesis, the United States, in a match on Tuesday. crucial with a place guaranteed to the winner. in the knockout stages. A draw could be enough to see Iran progress for the first time in their history.
As her daughter Sahar shares her views, Soheila is horrified that her son Hamed is supporting the team.
“I was just wondering where I made this huge mistake raising him. How could he support the mullahs’ team? she says. “When [goalkeeper Alireza] Beiranvand had his nose hurt and blood on his face in the eighth minute against England, I just thanked God and hope everyone in the team comes back broken for breaking Iranian hearts. This is how bitter and angry a nurse like me has become.
Government opponents see any triumph as a betrayal of protests that began in mid-September after 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for failing to fully comply with the Islamic dress code.
The protests have become one of the longest and largest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, killing at least 305 people, including 41 children, according to rights group Amnesty International.
“How could footballers have been so indifferent to so many killings in their country? I haven’t been happy for even a second in the past two months,” said Sahar, a yoga trainer who joins the protests. “If they hadn’t gone, the world would have paid more attention to the atrocities in Iran. Celebrities should use their platforms to shine a light on the protests rather than acting as if life is going on.
Koroush Mohammadi, head of the Iranian Sociological Association, said such reactions showed the high level of dissent in society. “When people think their demands are not being met in any area, football is also seen as part of the political establishment and the players as accomplices.”
The team won applause from the opposition for refusing to sing the national anthem ahead of their opening game against England. And when they lost that match 6-2, the worst defeat in the country’s World Cup history, cheers could be heard from apartments in Tehran, while some people even carried British flags through the streets. .
That mood was troubled after Iran’s historic 2-0 victory in their second match against Wales on Friday – their first victory against a European side.
Iranian diehards seized the opportunity to make the national team their own for the regime and took to the streets to celebrate, including thanking the team for singing the national anthem before the game – even though some reviewers said it was a little lukewarm.
Riot police and security forces, stationed in the capital’s main squares since September, waved the Islamic Republic flag and danced to loud pop music. They were joined by conservatives, including women dressed head to toe in black chadors, rarely seen at such events.
Samira, a 22-year-old, said she walked out after the game against Wales even though she and her friends refused to wear the usually compulsory hijab. “The security forces came to us without any objection to our [lack of] hijab and wondered why we hadn’t danced! she says. “We said, ‘Since when is dancing in public even allowed?’ We felt disgusted by the way they exploited football.
Protesters were also infuriated by the team’s celebrations – ignoring calls on social media not to – including hoisting Carlos Queiroz, their Portuguese coach, into the air.
“Just as the players were celebrating the victory, protesters in Sistan-Balochistan [a south-eastern province] were beaten, killed and injured and needed medicine and blood donations,” said Arian, a 30-year-old football fan.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday: “Iranian national team players have made the Iranian nation happy. May God make them happy.
For the Iranian opposition, their heroes are a handful of former players like Ali Daei. The country’s top scorer said he had been invited by world football’s governing body Fifa to Qatar but preferred to stay at home with the public. The arrest of Voria Ghafouri, a famous national league player, last week on charges of attacking the national team on his Instagram account has added to his popularity.
Domestic battles around the World Cup took an international turn this weekend when the US Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran’s green, white and red national flag on social media without the republic’s emblem. Islamic.
The intention was to show “support for women in Iran who are fighting for basic human rights,” American football media manager Michael Kammarman said on Sunday. American players were not consulted on the decision to change the flag, according to news organizations.
For the opposition, such gestures demonstrate that politics and sport are not separate. “If Russia were deprived of [participating in] the World Cup over Ukraine, Iran also had to be deprived,” Sahar said. “The world doesn’t care about us. I have never felt so alone.