EA member of Iran’s soccer team refused to sing the national anthem of the Islamic Republic before their World Cup match with England. The world will see if the same happens during their Friday game against Wales and next Tuesday’s game against the USA. This subtle but impressive act of defiance has been attributed to their support of anti-government protests in their homeland.
At a pre-match press conference in Qatar, team captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed his solidarity with the protesters. “First of all, I want to express my condolences to all the relatives in Iran,” he said. “They need to know that we stand behind them, that we support them and feel for them.” He later added: “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not good and our people are not happy. We’re here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be their voice or respect them.”
In September, mass protests erupted across Iran following the arrest and subsequent death of 22-year-old Mahsa (Jina) Amini. She was taken into custody by the so-called morality police for failing to comply with strict hijab laws. So far no one has been charged with Amini’s murder. Instead, the government crackdown reportedly killed more than 400 unarmed civilians, including more than 50 children, and arrested more than 15,000 protesters.
The parliament of the Islamic Republic voted overwhelmingly in favor of harsh punishment of demonstrators, while referring to the number arrested as “mohareb” (the enemy of God). At least six defendants, all captured unarmed, have been sentenced to death. Others have been sentenced to ten years or more in prison. But even with these heavy reprisals, the regime has failed to contain the protests, which continue to ebb and flow in all of Iran’s thirty-one provinces.
By refusing to sing the Islamic national anthem, Team Melli – the nickname for Iran’s football team – appears to have joined other athletes taking on the world stage against the Islamic regime. In recent months, several female athletes have shown solidarity with protesters by removing their headscarves as they compete for the land. The latest, archer Parmida Ghasemi, took off her hijab at an awards ceremony in Tehran.
Even before the World Cup, male athletes participated in the protests. Soccer player Saeed Piramoun made a gesture by cutting off his hair after scoring a goal in the Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup final at Cottage Beach in the United Arab Emirates. The gesture of cutting one’s hair has become an international symbol of support for Iranian women and those who demand change.
After scoring a goal in a Futsal match, player Hashim Shir Ali paid tribute to slain Baluchi activist Khodanour Lajaei to sit with his arms outstretched as if clasped around a pole. The original photo of the prisoner was reportedly released by the Iranian police to humiliate him. Instead, the photo became another inspiration for a gesture to emulate by those who joined the popular uprising.
Given these athletes’ acts of solidarity with protesters, Team Melli was heavily criticized for even planning to compete in Qatar. Sentiments grew bitter after photos showing them bowing to President Ebrahim Raisi at a farewell ceremony went viral.
As Iran played against England, the crowd booed and booed from the stands. Some wore T-shirts and placards reading “Woman, life, freedom,” which has become the rallying cry of Iranian protesters.
Iran’s state-controlled media made very little mention of the team’s refraining from singing the national anthem or Hajsafi’s comments. They also insist that protesters are rioters and that these “riots” are orchestrated by the country’s enemies. In response to Team Melli’s silence during the national anthem, Mehdi Chamran, the chairman of the Tehran Municipal Council said: “We will never allow anyone to insult our national anthem and our flag. Iranian civilization is several thousand years old. This civilization is as old as the sum total of European and American civilizations.”
For some Iranians, the football team’s refusal to sing the national anthem was “the least they could do”. Mohammad, a 22-year-old man in Baluchistan, told me that he felt Iran’s presence at the World Cup normalized a brutal dictatorship, but, he added, “the failure to sing the national anthem made the image of the Islamic Republic even worse. more dishonorable than it already is to the international community.”
Others applauded their bravery. Sepideh, a 24-year-old woman in Kurdistan, expressed concern about the pressure the team may have received from the regime: “It’s okay to sing the national anthem. It shows that they were forced to play [in the World Cup]. By refusing to sing, they said they sympathized with the protesters.”
Meanwhile, there are persistent reports of massacres, especially in ethnic minority regions such as Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Khuzestan. The reported murder of the youngest victim identified in Khuzestan, 10-year-old Kian Pirfalak, added further fuel to the fire. Kian’s mother at first blamed security forces for her son’s death, but later retracted the comments in what appeared to be a forced TV interview. The boy’s father is still in hospital with serious gunshot wounds.
In the province of Kurdistan, the birthplace of Mahsa Amini, the regime recently shelled the towns of Piranshahr, Marivan and Javanroud. Unconfirmed images of live gunfire and wounded have now surfaced from Javanroud. There are reports of several victims, including a 16-year-old named Karwan Ghader Shokri, in Piranshahr. Another man was reportedly killed when Islamic Republic troops fired into crowds as the teen’s body was taken to the mosque.
In addition to using intimidation, arrests and deadly force to silence the opposition, the regime has imposed widespread internet blackouts.
The international community has broadly expressed support for the demonstrators and condemned the actions of the Iranian regime. French President Emmanuel Macron recently characterized the protests as a “revolution”. This week, the US imposed targeted sanctions on three Iranian officials in Kurdistan. On Thursday, the United Nations Human Rights Council will hold a special session to discuss “the deteriorating human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Several athletes who defied the regime officially apologized for not wearing the hijab, but these also appear to be forced withdrawals. Because of this, some Iranians have expressed concern about the footballers and their families. In a land of reprisals, coerced confessions and apologies, the fate of Team Melli remains in the balance. What is certain is that their silence during the national anthem drew even more attention to the plight of Iranians on the ground.