Hundreds of Iranian fans arrived at Doha’s Khalifah stadium on Monday with a secret: they wanted their national team to lose.
“In my heart, I don’t want them to win,” said Mokhtar, 59, wincing visibly at the admission. The propaganda value of defeating Iran’s former colonial master, England, would simply be too irresistible for the country’s embattled rulers, he said.
“The players would go home and meet the president, they would be celebrated by the mullahs,” he said.
The Iranian colours painted on his face were starting to crack in the afternoon sun. “I still hope they score a lot of goals,” he said. “But then lose.”
For many Iranians, everything now is about the popular uprising that has been roiling their country for the past two months and left hundreds of protesters dead, including dozens of children. The country’s World Cup campaign in Qatar is not immune.
The squad flew to Doha last week under a cloud of popular criticism after meeting the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, with some players pictured bowing to the hardliner.
“Many say this isn’t our national team,” said Ali, 42 from Qom. His Iranian national team shirt was splattered with an illustration of several bullet holes, with a bloody handprint on the back.
“I think they were forced [to meet the president]. If the players don’t sing the national anthem today, maybe people will forgive them.”
As Iran’s national anthem was played before kick-off, fans sounded their horns in defiance and loud boos echoed throughout the stadium. Iran’s squad linked arms and stared into the distance, none uttering a word as fans, some in tears, applauded their silent gesture.
Signs of the uprising were everywhere outside the stadium. The largest cluster of Iranian fans danced with the lion-and-sun flag of the country’s pre-revolutionary government. Dozens lined up for photos with the ensign, banned in the country since 1979.
One English fan watched on, a little bemused, applying sunscreen to his face. “I haven’t been following it in granular detail, to be honest,” he said.
Several people were stopped from bringing the flag into the stadium due to a Fifa restrictions on political statements, but Dani Elahi managed to get his inside anyway. “I snuck it in,” the Iranian-American said. “I had it out the whole game.”
The Iranian football legend Ali Karimi has not played a match in eight years, but outside Khalifa Stadium on Monday afternoon, hundreds wore his name on the back of their team shirts.
Karimi has been one of Iran’s most outspoken public figures condemning the treatment of Mahsa Amini, the 21-year-old woman who was arrested by the country’s morality police and died in hospital days later, the trigger for the nationwide protests that are now in their third month.
The former Iranian national captain, who lives in Dubai, has been charged with national security crimes in absentia.
Sitting in the shade at the boundary of the stadium, two young women in Iran shirts were using markers to carefully spell out “freedom” in their palm of their hands. “We hope for victory for the other team, because this team is not representative,” one said.
She was from Shiraz and had reserved her tickets and booked flights before the uprising had started. “These aren’t good days for Iran, and this team doesn’t support us,” she said.
She gave her name, then after a few seconds reconsidered. “It’s not safe,” she said. “Call us both Mahsa. We are all Mahsa Amini.”
Another trio wore sunglasses painted in the Iranian colours and bright red shirts, each emblazoned with a single word of the phrase “Women, life and liberty, which has become the uprising’s main slogan, and was written across placards held aloft across the stadium.
“The Ukrainian football team, they support their people,” said Ehsan, from Tehran. “But our team doesn’t. We aren’t motivated to be in Qatar, but this is our duty. Honestly? I support England.”
If there were any supporters of the Iranian regime among the crowds, he added, none had approached him to make it known. “They keep quiet. Over there they have the power,” he said. “Outside Iran, we are the majority.”