Iran’s World Cup soccer team declined to sing their national anthem before their opening match against England on Monday after many fans back home accused the squad of siding with a violent state crackdown on persistent popular unrest.
Protests demanding the fall of the ruling Shi’ite Muslim theocracy have gripped Iran since the death two months ago of young woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest for flouting the strict Islamic dress code.
Dozens of Iranian public figures, athletes and artists have displayed solidarity with the protesters – but not the national soccer team, until Monday’s match when all team members remained silent when the national anthem was played.
Iranian state television did not show the players lined up for the anthem before the match got under way in Qatar, just across the Gulf from their homeland.
The Iranian squad could not avoid being overshadowed by the anti-government unrest that has rattled Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim theocracy, while other World Cup teams were squarely focused on their tactics on the pitch.
Ahead of the match, no Iranian player had voiced support for the demonstrations by compatriots from all walks of life, one of the most sustained challenges to the cleric elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In the past, the Iranian soccer team was a source of fired up national pride throughout the country. Now, with mass protests, many would prefer it withdrew from the World Cup.
Before travelling to Doha the team met with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral while the street unrest raged on, drawing an outcry on social media.
“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not play,” university student Elmira, 24, said, speaking by telephone from Tehran before the match.
“It is not Iran’s team, it is the Islamic Republic’s team.
“They could refuse to take part in the World Cup or even refuse to play if they were forced to go, to show that they are part of the nation, to show solidarity with mothers in Iran whose children were killed by the regime (during protests).”
The activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors.