The first round of games at Qatar 2022 has been dominated by political statements, with the refusal of the Iranian team to sing their country’s national anthem ahead of their opener against England earning widespread praise.
Now, this clear gesture of protest against the repressive Iranian regime could lead to some reconciliation between “Team Melli” and their fans, who had previously criticised the country’s footballers for their perceived half-hearted support of the freedom movement.
But further gestures and statements of solidarity will be necessary to permanently change attitudes, according to Koorosh Bazyar, a football coach of Iranian descent who lives in Trier, Germany. “The Iran players should continue to refrain from singing the national anthem at their remaining World Cup games,” he told DW, adding that the global community is looking closely for signs of solidarity with the population back home.
Referring to the German team’s protest against FIFA ahead of their game against Japan, Bazvar said that “there are lots of creative ways to protest,” but that they’ll have even more effect if combined with sporting success. “If Iran can get good results in the next two games against Wales and the United States, this will have a euphoric effect on the fans, and the players will be encouraged to continue their protest against the regime.”
Demands for regime change
The symbolism of the players’ collective silence travelled around the world, but had particular meaning among Iranians who understand the actual lyrics proclaiming the Islamic Republic to be “enduring, continuing and eternal”—a sentiment clearly not shared by protesters fighting for a new, free, democratic Iranian state. Indeed, videos on social media showed many Iranian fans outside the Khalifa International stadium in Doha singing Iran’s old, traditional anthem.
Ahead of the team’s second game in Group B on November 25, the players have come in for criticism from Iranian politicians. “That should never have been allowed to happen,” said one conservative member of parliament, Ali Motahari, adding that the players are representatives of the system of the Islamic Republic and ought to behave as such, with no right to express individual opinions. “Shame on the ministry of sport and the minister who sent people like that to represent the Islamic Republic at the World Cup.”
The players are unlikely to face serious punishment for their protest beyond potential omission from future squads. Their families could be the target of state-sponsored harassment, however, and the pro-regime press has already begun to demonise them.
“Some members of the national team had no pride and didn’t sing the national anthem,” raged the ultraconservative daily newspaper Keyhan, considered the propaganda arm of Supreme Leader Khamenei. “Iran lost 6-2 against an alliance of England, Israel, Saudi Arabia and domestic and external traitors.”
Iran and FIFA censorship
Iranian state broadcaster IRIB interrupted its live coverage the moment the players’ protest became clear, and also censured images of female fans in the stadium. The volume was also turned down on Iranian fan chants criticizing the players during the game, as were chants in support of critical former players and national heroes Ali Karimi and Ali Daei.
Even in FIFA’s own official footage of the game, all protests were simply ignored and replaced by happy fans celebrating in the stands—presumably the sort of acquiescent fans that Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz would prefer.
Queiroz: ‘Fans should stay at home’
“If they don’t want to support us, they should stay at home,” said the Portuguese coach, giving the fans the blame for his team’s defeat and unleashing a furious reaction from Iran’s football community. “Queiroz has no right to speak for the Iranian fans,” countered former national team coach Mohammad Mayeli-Kohan. “He alone is responsible for the heavy defeat against England.”
But Queiroz’s remarks went down well on state television where IRIB presenter Javad Khiyabani said: “The national team has no significance if it’s not supported by its own population. The main reason for their failure against England was the lack of support from their compatriots.”
“Team Melli” may have burnt its bridges with its government back home, but the Iranians have two more chances to rescue their World Cup campaign against Wales on November 25 and the United States on November 29—and to continue to win back the affection and support of the fans.