It could well be that Sardar Azmoun’s career in the Iran national team came to an end on Tuesday afternoon in a suburb of Vienna. Azmoun came on as a substitute in a friendly against Senegal and shortly afterwards scored his 41st goal in his 65th game for all Team Melli, to the 1:1 final score. Hardly anyone saw the 27-year-old, whose main job was a striker at Bayer Leverkusen, as he then refrained from celebrating and only accepted brief hugs from his team-mates. Spectators were not allowed in the Mödling stadium, they wanted to avoid protests in the stands. But even before the kick-off, Azmoun’s effort and his goal had a special, highly political context even without people in the stands.
“Ashamed of you all, how carelessly people are murdered. Iranian women live long,” Azmoun said in a statement on Instagram and thus joined the protests against the mullahs’ regime – although he was apparently not allowed to do so: “Because of the rules of the national team, we weren’t allowed to say anything, but I can’t stand silence any longer.”
Azmoun was referring to the images from Iran that are currently on social media. Young and old, cutting their hair in front of the running Instagram cameras, singing and dancing, burning their headscarves on public pyres. Burning cars and dumpsters, nightly street battles, police officers who not only fire tear gas but also shoot live ammunition. Thousands of men and women confront the baton-wielding police officers of the special commandos and the Basijis – the dreaded militia officers – in civilian clothes, protect other women, push back other security forces, and risk a great deal. Sometimes her life too. Up to 70 people are said to have died in the protests. Not all are demonstrators, Basijis and police officers are also dying.
The protests were triggered by the senseless death of a young woman. Mahsa Amini was visiting the capital, she came from the provinces, she wanted to visit relatives with her brother. What then happened to the 22-year-old, who went by the Kurdish first name Jina, on September 13 in Tehran is what has happened to millions of Iranian women in the four decades since the Islamic Revolution: Because her headscarf supposedly didn’t fit properly – whether on purpose or simply from a lack of attention – members of the religious police took her to task. They arrested the young woman and wanted to have an “educational talk” with her about Islamic customs and dress codes, but that never happened.
A video shows Mahsa Amini collapsing in the police station. Already in a coma, she dies in the hospital three days later. What happened before that remains officially a matter of dispute. The Iranian Ministry of the Interior insists on its – not very credible – point of view: a heart failure. There were no beatings, no abuse.
But others take a different view. Allegedly, the young Kurdish woman was beaten when she was arrested, and her head was brutally banged against the window of the police car several times. The younger brother, who was there after all, claims to have seen that. The father explained that his daughter was perfectly healthy. And a CT image from the hospital is said to show severe brain injuries and a fractured skull. According to the family and the protesters, this is what caused the young woman to die, not a weak heart.
Since then, the young woman’s face has become a symbol of a protest against the regime: a youth without prospects, a highly educated but impoverished middle class, an economy strangled by international sanctions because of the regime’s desire for nuclear weapons, all-encompassing corruption, which is why people are rising the street, mostly to spontaneous, heterogeneous protests. What’s missing are the familiar faces and leaders who will represent the protest reaching a level where they are unstoppable – and where the Islamic Republic could possibly fail.
In this context, football – once again – has a special role to play. In the history of Iran were footballers most recently in 2010 involved in protests when some members of the national team tied green ribbons around their hands to show their support for then-defeated presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. Familiar faces from the Bundesliga Among them were: Vahid Hashemian, who played for FC Bayern and VfL Bochum in his career, Mehdi Mahdavikia, who played for Eintracht Frankfurt and Hamburger SV, and Ali Karimi, who played for FC Bayern and Schalke 04.
Karimi in particular is now back in focus. “Don’t be afraid of strong women. Maybe the day will come when they will be your only army,” Karimi wrote on Twitter a few days ago, showing solidarity with the protesters. Karimi has more than twelve million followers on Instagram, for many years he was the most popular athlete in his home country and the national player with the third most appearances. However, he has apparently been living with his family in Dubai for some time because the Iranian regime has repeatedly threatened him – most recently even with an arrest, like the portal Persian Soccer reported. In addition, his house in a suburb of Tehran was apparently also confiscated by the mullah regime, apparently in response to his postings. “A house without a bottom is worthless,” he wrote meaningfully on Twitter.
His former colleagues jumped at his side on social media. “He played for our country in the sacred national team uniform for years and made us proud,” Hashemian wrote alongside a photo of Karimi. he was “a patriot and lover of Iran”. Mahdavikia, who as Fifa ambassador is leading the Iranian delegation to the World Cup, also expressed his solidarity with the protests. He, like Karimi, shared a post by Iranian actor Reza Kianian.
After the band protests in 2010, all three players initially announced their retirement from the national team, only Karimi later returned to the field. However, Mahdavikia and Hashemian later contributed to youth football in Iran as coaches in the association.
At the time, none of the three were in the situation that Sardar Azmoun is now having to endure: the World Cup in Qatar begins in just under two months, and the Leverkusen striker is now risking his participation in the tournament with his political statements. To ensure this, many other members of the Iranian national team are currently silent; or at least refrain from clearly positioning themselves.
But sporting consequences, Azmoun also emphasizes, would of course have to be accepted under the cruel circumstances that prevail in Iran at the moment: “The ultimate punishment would be that they throw me out of the team,” he wrote: “But what a small sacrifice in comparison to every single strand of hair on an Iranian woman.”