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In the spotlight, Iran’s World Cup team silently nods to protests at home

Iranian players line up for their country's national anthem before the match Monday between England and Iran in Doha, Qatar. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

DOHA, Qatar — As their country’s national anthem was played at the World Cup on Monday, Iran’s players appeared silent and stone-faced, declining to sing in what was widely seen as an acknowledgment of — or even a show of solidarity with — a popular uprising unfolding at home.

The appearance of Team Melli, as the Iranian squad is known, is being closely watched, and not just for how it performs in the stadiums in Qatar. During widespread unrest in Iran that began in September with the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, Iranian sports figures — including revered current and former players for the national soccer team — have assumed a central role.

As anti-government protesters have looked to the soccer players to support the protest movement, which has faced a withering and deadly crackdown by the government, Iran’s leaders have tried to keep the team’s players from speaking out, hoping to use sports as a distraction from the uprising, rather than a rallying call, analysts say.

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“I’m excited, but not completely, because of the process of revolution in Iran,” said one supporter of Team Melli who had traveled from the Iranian city of Shiraz, as he strolled in a shopping mall before Monday’s match at the nearby Khalifa International Stadium.

“I’m full of energy for my team. But my people are being killed by the regime,” he said. The players were in a bind, having to think of family in Iran as they decided whether to be vocal, he said. But he added: “We want more sympathy from them.”

Fans of the Iranian national team in Doha, Qatar, on Nov. 21 spoke in favor of ongoing protests against Iran's regime. (Video: The Washington Post)

Among the spectators, some showed clear support for the uprising, carrying signs that read, “Woman, life, freedom,” the central slogan of the protests. In the stands, some fans could be heard shouting the word “dishonorable” at the team in Persian, echoing a chant hurled at security forces in Iran.

Some of the supporters had not noticed the players’ action. “None of the players sang?” said a young man who had traveled from Tehran for the match afterward. “Of course, it’s a statement,” he said. Iran’s national broadcaster, meanwhile, only showed select images of spectators cheering for Iran and no political signs.

Even before the start of the tournament, some Iranians had called for FIFA to ban the team as a sign of support for anti-government protests. Others argued that Iran attending the World Cup is important for protesters back home, as a high-profile event that offers opportunities for players and spectators to voice dissent.

But members of the Iranian team, under enormous pressure from both the public and security services, have largely remained mute, said Omid Namazi, a former assistant coach of Iran’s national team.

“They’ve been put in a very precarious situation,” he said. Iranian authorities and the intelligence agents traveling with the team clearly want them to stay silent, while Iranians “expect these guys who are celebrities and well-known to be their voice.”

He could not recall Iranian soccer ever becoming this political and polarized.

“This is the biggest event in the world,” he said. “And obviously the regime is very concerned about this.”

The day before flying to Qatar, the members of Team Melli all met with President Ebrahim Raisi on Nov. 14. They posed for a photograph with Raisi, a hard-liner who is overseeing the crackdown, angering many Iranians.

Team forward Sardar Azmoun has been the most vocal champion of the uprising, Namazi said.

“I don’t care if I’m sacked,” Azmoun wrote in a since-deleted post on Instagram in late September. “Shame on you for killing people so easily. Viva Iranian women.”

The post fueled speculation that Azmoun would be punished and left out of the 26-player World Cup team. He later issued an apology on Instagram.

In the weeks that followed, sports-related controversies continued to shape the narrative of Iran’s uprising.

An Iranian female climber, Elnaz Rekabi, made global headlines in mid-October when she competed without a headscarf in South Korea. In November, members of a popular soccer club team, Esteghlal, did not celebrate after winning the country’s Super Cup. It was a “bitter victory” dedicated “to the women of Iran and the families of all the victims,” one player told Iranian media.

A small gesture by beach soccer player Saeed Piramoon, after he scored the team’s winning goal at the Intercontinental Cup in early November, resonated widely with Iranians supporting the protests. Piramoon simulated snipping his hair, imitating Iranian women who have publicly cut their hair as part of the protests. The gesture swiftly spread across Iranian social media.

The relative silence of Team Melli has contrasted with the outspokenness of some of Iran’s soccer legends.

From his base in Dubai, Iranian soccer superstar Ali Karimi threw his weight and prestige behind the uprising — a stance he took early in the protests, which also probably has made it impossible for him to safely return to Iran. On Oct. 4, he was charged in absentia with “encouraging riots.”

Karimi, along with Ali Daei, a former head of Iran’s national soccer team, and Javad Nekounam, another soccer star, all refused FIFA invitations to attend the World Cup.

Hundreds of hard-line Iranian politicians earlier this month called for harsh punishments, including the death penalty, against Iranian protesters. But Iran’s Portuguese head coach, Carlos Queiroz, last week told a news conference that Team Melli members could “protest as they would if they were from any other country.”

On Sunday, Ehsan Hajsafi, the team’s 32-year-old captain, speaking to the news media ahead of the England match, said the players “support” the protesters, according to Reuters. “They should know that we are with them,” he said. “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right, our people are not happy.”

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For some of the supporters of the protests, though, the team had not been sufficiently outspoken — and even their silence during the national anthem was not enough.

“This is too late,” said Mahmood Ebrahimzadeh, a former player for Iran’s national team living in exile in Maryland, referring to the team’s refusal to sing. “It’s not going to do any good anymore.”

“If they wanted to be silent, they could stay in the country and not come to the World Cup,” he said.

After the 6-2 loss to England on Monday, Queiroz, the coach, suggested his players were facing more pressure than they deserved. “You don’t even imagine, you don’t even know, behind the scenes, what these kids, they’ve been living — just because they want to play football, because they want to express themselves as footballers,” he said.

“They are human beings,” he said. “They are kids. They only have one dream.”

Berger reported from Washington. Chuck Culpepper in Doha contributed to this report.

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