The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iran’s World Cup victory stirs joy, but tensions over protests persist

An Iranian soccer fan in Qatar on Friday shows a shirt memorializing Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in Iran in September at age 22. The display preceded the World Cup match between Wales and Iran at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in the municipality of al-Rayyan. (Frank Augstein/AP)
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DOHA, Qatar — The woman stood crying at the soccer stadium gate, surrounded by policemen, pleading to be allowed back in to find her husband. She wore the slogan of Iran’s uprising — woman, life, freedom — on her black T-shirt, and for that, she told passersby, she had been thrown out of the stadium.

The departing crowd, giddy from Iran’s improbable, last-minute victory over Wales, gathered around her, trying to negotiate an end to the standoff. Then, Iranian fans began to chant in Farsi: “Leave her, leave her.” The police, surrounded and looking nervous, relented, letting the woman back into the stadium grounds.

The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement back home targeting its clerical leadership, and the tensions, inescapable and persistent, are spilling onto the field.

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So far, in Iran’s first two matches, fans have held signs or waved banners in support of the protests. Arguments have broken out between pro- and anti-government supporters in the stadium and its surroundings. The displays have laid bare the depth of Iran’s malaise and alarmed the Qatari hosts, who said before the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that the political conflicts in the region could play out during the tournament.

An Iranian woman was forced to change her shirt displaying a women’s rights slogan before being allowed into the World Cup match between Wales and Iran. (Video: Kevin Amirehsani via Storyful)

The protests in Iran started in September after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. A crackdown by the authorities has killed hundreds of people, human rights groups say.

U.S. Soccer briefly alters Iran’s flag on social media

Members of Iran’s national team are in a vise, called upon by the protest movement to speak out against a government that brooks no dissent. On Thursday, authorities arrested a former national team player, Voria Ghafouri, in Iran, in what was widely seen as a warning to members of the World Cup squad to keep their mouths shut.

They had done just that ahead of their first match in Qatar, against England, declining to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a show of support for the protest movement. On Friday, though, team members elected to sing, as whistles and boos echoed around Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

Before the match against Wales, a few supporters of the Iranian team said that while they were happy at the team’s earlier refusal to sing, they worried that the players were facing an inordinate amount of pressure to comment on politics.

“It’s a very delicate time,” said a 28-year-old Iranian who lives in Britain and attended Friday’s match with his brother, who lives in the United States. “I don’t think we should be throwing hate and shame at the players,” added the man, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relatives in Iran.

“They are young guys, here to play football,” his brother said.

There were signs Friday of a more determined effort to silence political protest, such as the removal of the woman wearing the protest T-shirt. A witness said that police approached another Iranian supporter who had put black tape on the Iranian flag, as well as her mouth, and made her remove them.

Photos showed a police officer confronting another woman who held an Amini T-shirt and wore makeup that approximated blood streaming from her eyes.

It was not clear whether there was a directive from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to tamp down political displays, or from Qatari authorities, but the policy appeared unevenly enforced. Allen Shahipour, who wore a homemade “Woman, Life, Freedom” T-shirt, said he was allowed inside. So was a 34-year-old named Peari, from Isfahan in Iran, who wore a button-down shirt silk-screened with an artistic tribute to Amini.

“We are so happy” with Iran’s win Friday, she said. But to her, the victory had little to do with the protest movement. “I don’t think this will affect anything,” she said.

Another man, named Ajmal, disagreed. “I think this is good for the revolution,” he said about Friday’s game, including the whistling during the anthem. “The government doesn’t hear us.”

Iran turned what looked to be a draw against Wales into a 2-0 victory in the final minutes of World Cup’s Group B in Qatar on Nov. 25. (Video: Jackson Barton, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Attendees widely suspected that Iranian officials were present at the match. “They are inside. They are outside. They look like spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said a 43-year-old man from Tehran, wearing an Iran jersey as he left the stadium with a childhood friend.

For the two of them, the victory and the accompanying euphoria were a welcome distraction from whatever was going on back home. “We needed this win,” said the man with the jersey. His friend said the win was “complicated,” but he agreed.

After the England match, which Iran lost 6-2, the friend had chain-smoked cigarettes — not because of the loss, he said, but because of all the tension in the air. “It’s getting better,” he said.

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The loss prompted Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, to chide the fans for criticizing the team, for the pressure he said they had placed on his players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said Mac Taba, 33. At the stadium Friday, through all the noise, the fans had done just that, he said.

Besides, “we needed to get a win,” he said.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.