Iran’s World Cup team shuns national anthem to back protests

IRAN’S World Cup team refused to sing its national anthem during its first World Cup appearance against England on Monday, a gesture that will be widely seen as a pledge of support for anti-government protests gripping the country.

The squad, known as Team Melli, has been at the centre of criticism and controversy over participation in the tournament and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had earlier warned athletes not to “disrespect” the country.

The players have been caught between Iranian officials who want them to show loyalty to Tehran’s embattled Islamic establishment and the team’s mainly young fans who have urged the footballers to show solidarity with the protests over Mahsa Amini — a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody in Tehran in September after allegedly violating Islamic dress codes.

Historically Team Melli has been celebrated by Iranians across political divides for triumphing against much stronger international sides and unifying the country.

Past appearances at World Cup tournaments have triggered huge street celebrations in Iran, often coinciding with moments of geopolitical tension or crisis, such as their 1998 World Cup group stage win against the US.

Its popularity also been used by the government for propaganda purposes. Iranian state TV has been using the occasion to propagate its own music videos promoting national unity and the team has faced criticism from protesters for not speaking out.

In response to this, team captain Ehsan Hajsafi offered his condolences to the families of people killed during the protests in remarks Sunday.

“We stand beside them and we feel their pain,” he told a news conference in Doha. He specifically referred to a nine-year-old boy who was killed in protests in the southwestern city of Izeh last week, whose family and rights groups say was shot by security forces.

The team came under fire following a Nov 14 photo opportunity with President Ebrahim Raisi, when at least two team players were shown bowing their heads in deference to the hardline cleric. The images went viral on Twitter, spurring outrage.

“I want to watch the match to see whether the team will do anything on the pitch and if they’ll try to make up for those photos,” said Panthea, a 34-year old gym instructor and soccer fan in Tehran before the match. She didn’t want to give her surname because of the sensitivities of speaking to foreign media.

Other top Iranian footballers and athletes have supported the protests. Iranian soccer star Ali Daei — one of the most capped players in the world — has boycotted the World Cup and stayed at home to show solidarity with the demonstrators. Last week, former goalkeeper Parviz Boroumand was arrested for taking part in protests, state media reported.

At other sporting events, Iranian teams have also taken a stand. The men’s water polo team refused to sing during the Islamic Republic’s anthem at an event on Nov 8. Iranian sportswomen have competed unveiled at international tournaments, for the first time in decades, drawing the ire of authorities.

British comedian Omid Djalili has urged the England team to make its own protests against Iran’s leadership in a video posted on social media and viewed one million times.

Demonstrations outside the Iranian embassy in London have also drawn rebuke from Tehran. Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the UK ambassador on Sunday to complain for the fourth time in two months. — BLOOMBERG