Iran’s soccer players as a pawn in politics

Dhe game is over. And if you want to understand on this late Tuesday evening what kind of game the Iran national soccer team had to play in this World Cup, you have to look at two cities that are more than 1000 kilometers apart at the moment when their end is certain to be apart

Doha, Qatar: Players sit on the lawn of al-Thumama Stadium. They wear the jersey of the Islamic Republic Iran and fell faintly when the referee called off their third game in Group B after nine minutes of added time. They are disappointed because they lost 1-0 to the USA in what was probably the most important game in their country’s World Cup history from a sporting point of view. Because they only needed to score one goal that night to go through to the round of 16. Because they could have done what has never been done in Iranian jerseys.

Tehran, Iran: Cars are parked on the streets of the capital, as can be seen in many videos that are quickly circulated on the Internet. They hardly make any progress because the streets are so crowded. You hear horns. The people in the cars are obviously happy that the national team of the USA, the state responsible for so many crimes in their homeland, has won. And they are happy that the national team of Iran lost. In other videos, people can be heard shouting “Amrika, America!” from the balconies of their apartment blocks, the name of the country that the Islamic Republic’s propaganda is demonizing. The opponent’s name in the round of 16 match.

plaything of political disputes

If you look at the pictures doha and the images from Tehran, you can see how the Iranian players have become the pawn of the political debate in their homeland during these weeks of the World Cup, when, like so many athletes, they should play the games of their lives. On one side are the rulers of the Islamic Republic. On the other hand, the supporters of the freedom movement. And the national players? They angered those who want a new Iran when they made a deferential gesture before leaving for a mandatory appointment with President Ebrahim Raisi. They then upset the system by not singing the national anthem before the first game. And then they did before the second and third game – presumably under pressure – after all.

On Tuesday evening, before the game has started, you can see Sardar Azmoun, forward from Leverkusen and sympathizer of the freedom movement. He mumbles the anthem along. It looks like he’s suffering. He’s probably suffering. At that moment at the latest you could see: There are players playing who want to do everything right but probably can’t do anything right. Later, when the game is over, says Carlos QueirozIranian national coach from 2011 to 2019 and again since September 2022, in the press conference: “I’ve never seen players in my life who gave so much and got so little in return.” He means the lack of support from the people in Iran.

In 2018, after the tournament in Russia, he said something similar – referring to a lack of support from the regime-run association. In Doha, he became irritated when a reporter asked him about the latest CNN report that Iranian players’ families had been threatened with torture and imprisonment if the players failed to “behave”. He called the report, based on testimonies from an anonymous source, “disinformation”. And notes that his players “brought prestige to their country’s jersey”.

The game is over – the uprising continues

It is on the shirts in the stadium this Tuesday that the fans’ protest, which has become less visible since the first game against England, can still be seen. You can see the names of Ali Daei, Ali Karimi and Mehdi Mahdavikia, former football greats who positioned themselves against the regime. And in front of the stadium you can see what consequences wearing jerseys can have. Qatari security forces are standing at the entrances. They are a father and his son because the father is wearing a Women Life Freedom shirt. They later arrested a Danish journalist who, he writes, filmed how Iranians critical of the regime were being harassed by Iranians loyal to the regime. Around the time of the game against Wales, Iranians had already identified employees of Tehran ministries on social networks who presented themselves as fans in Doha and in some cases gave interviews in which they raved about life at home.

An activist from the group Open Stadiums told the FAZ that she saw a large number of Iranian spectators in and around the stadium who were apparently hired by the regime. “We know how that works. They get money from the regime and do as they are told. And the stadium was – clearly recognizable for us – full of undercover agents. Among the fans and the journalists. It was obvious that they were part of the regime.” The Qatari police were practically directed by these Iranians. Open Stadiums had warned of this situation in a letter to FIFA at the end of September – and received no reply. “I’m incredibly disappointed in FIFA,” says the activist. “It seems like they don’t care what’s happening here. People get into dangerous situations, get harassed for a t-shirt – at an international event!”

The Iran internationals will now return to their homeland. Who knows what awaits them there? The game is over. The uprising against the Islamic Republic continues.

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