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Iran players’ act of brave defiance puts armband cowardice to shame

Iran fans hold a banner reading 'Woman life freedom' inside the stadium during the match against England. Photo: Paul Childs/Reuters

It took a few moments for the crowd to understand what was going on, but when they did, thousands booed at the bravery of the Iranian national team. England were due to kick off against Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. The national anthems began. First, ‘God Save the King’. And then silence from the Iranian players.

As the camera panned across the faces of Team Melli, not one sang their national anthem. When the Iranian fans realised what was going on, the crowd erupted, first with boos from the pro-government fans who had come in big numbers from Tehran.

Then cheers, and tears, from the Iranians who understood the significance of what they had just seen.

For weeks protests have raged in Iran following the death in custody of a young Iranian woman called Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of the morality police, allegedly for not covering her hair properly.

As thousands have filled the streets, and hundreds have died, protesters have urged those that have huge social media platforms in Iran – actors,artists and musicians alike – to back the people.

And of course, in a country where football is obsessively popular and hugely political, Iranian footballers have found themselves in an almost impossible position; on the one hand urged by protesters to use their vast popularity and the platform of Qatar 2022 to support the people, on the other, pressurised by the government to represent the Islamic Republic on the international stage.

But speaking out against the regime in Iran is a dangerous game that could lead not just to your arrest but also the persecution of your family. So, as the World Cup approached, Iran’s players took a muted stand.

One player, striker Sardar Azmoun, did post a supportive message on Instagram, and later claimed both he and his team-mates were being prevented from showing public support for the protests by the Iranian football federation. But he was soon forced to apologise and at one point it looked like his stand would cost him a place in the World Cup squad. Carlos Querioz insisted that he went.

Still, the protestors were furious the players were not doing more.

And so all eyes fell on the Khalifa International Stadium. Would Iranian fans protest inside and outside the ground? Would they be arrested by Qatari police? Would they be apprehended by Iranian agents mingling in the crowd? And, most importantly, would the players sing the anthem?

In the end the government decided to tip the balance and sent more than 6,000 supporters they could count on. It was simply too dangerous for any meaningful anti-government protests at the stadium. But then the anthem began and the players fell silent. The pro-government supporters vented their fury at the players. Around the world, the players were lauded.

“I think lots of players [had] felt how disappointed we were in them,” said “Sara”, the founder of Open Stadiums, an activist group that campaigns to end the ban on women attending football matches in Iran, and who wrote a letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantinto urging him to expel Iran from Qatar 2022.

“Especially comments that went viral that their blood was on their hands. Or a banner on Tehran’s highway that said ‘when you’re dribbling the ball don’t slip on the blood.’ So these kinds of things are very heavy for the players to carry.”

Every Iranian player risked something when they chose not to sing. The English FA, when they decided that Harry Kane would not wear the OneLove armband under pressure from FIFA, were not prepared to risk a booking for their principles. Compared to what the Iranian players have just done, it will rightfully be seen as a shameful and cowardly act. 

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