Football divides families across the globe but the national team is usually a source of unity, particularly during the World Cup.
That is not the case in Iran. Despite being a football-loving nation, the team’s participation in the tournament in Qatar has accentuated splits in society between the regime and its opponents, who have been staging large anti-government protests in cities across the country for more than two months.
Opposition supporters see the team — one of the country’s best and ranked 20th in the world — as traitors for playing under the Islamic republic’s flag and meeting President Ebrahim Raisi before they left for Doha. Pictures showed some players bowing to the hardline politician.
Soheila, a 58-year-old retired nurse in Tehran who supports the anti-regime protests, wants Iran to lose badly, even when they play their government’s sworn enemy, the US, on Tuesday in a crucial match with the winner guaranteed a place in the knockout stages. A draw might be enough to see Iran progress for the first time in their history.
While her daughter Sahar shares her views, Soheila is horrified that her son Hamed backs the team.
“I just wondered where I had made that huge mistake in bringing him up. How could he back the mullahs’ team?” she said. “When [goalkeeper Alireza] Beiranvand had his nose injured and blood on his face in the eighth minute against England, I just thanked God and hoped all team members come back broken for breaking Iranians’ hearts. This is how bitter and angry a nurse like me has become.”
Government opponents regard any triumph as a betrayal of the protests which started in mid-September after 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in police custody after being arrested for failing to fully observe the Islamic dress code.
The demonstrations have evolved into one of the longest and biggest anti-government protest movements since the 1979 Islamic revolution, claiming at least 305 lives, including 41 children, according to rights group Amnesty International.
“How could football players be so indifferent to so many killings in their country? I’ve not been happy even for one second during the past two months,” said Sahar, a yoga trainer who joins the protests. “If they had not gone, the world would have paid more attention to atrocities in Iran. Celebrities should use their platforms to highlight protests rather than behaving as if life goes on.”
Koroush Mohammadi, head of Iran’s Sociological Association, said such reactions showed the high level of dissent in society. “When people think their demands are not met in any field, football is also seen as part of the political establishment and players as complicit.”
The team did win opposition plaudits for refusing to sing the national anthem before their opening match against England. And when they lost that game 6-2, the worst defeat in the country’s World Cup history, cheers could be heard from Tehran apartments, while some people even carried British flags in the streets.
That mood was punctured after Iran’s historic 2-0 win in their second match against Wales on Friday — their first victory against a European team.
Iran’s hardliners seized the opportunity to appropriate the national team for the regime and poured on to the streets to celebrate, including thanking the team for singing the national anthem before the match — even though some commentators said it was a bit halfhearted.
The riot police and security forces, who have been stationed in the capital city’s main squares since September, waved the Islamic republic’s flag and danced to loud pop music. They were joined by conservatives, including women dressed top-to-toe in the black chador, hardly ever seen at such events.
Samira, a 22-year-old woman, said she went out after the Wales match even though she and her friends had refused to wear the usually compulsory hijab. “Security forces came to us without any objection to our [lack of] hijab and wondered why we didn’t dance!” she said. “We said: ‘since when is dancing in public even allowed?’ We felt disgusted by the way they exploited football.”
Protesters were also infuriated by the team’s celebrations — ignoring calls on social media not to do so — including hoisting Carlos Queiroz, their Portuguese coach, into the air.
“In the very moments players held victory celebrations, protesters in Sistan-Baluchestan [a south-eastern province] were being beaten up, killed and injured and needed medicine and blood donations,” said Arian, a 30-year-old football fan.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Saturday: “The Iranian national team players made the Iranian nation happy. May God make them happy.”
For the Iranian opposition, their heroes are a handful of former players such as Ali Daei. The country’s record scorer said he was invited by Fifa, world football’s governing body, to Qatar but that he preferred to stay at home with the public. The arrest of Voria Ghafouri, a famous player in the domestic league, last week on accusations that he had undermined the national team on his Instagram account added to his popularity.
The domestic battles over the World Cup took an international turn at the weekend when the US Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran’s national green, white and red flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic republic.
The intent was to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights”, US Soccer media officer Michael Kammarman said on Sunday. American players were not consulted on the decision to alter the flag, according to news agencies.
For the opposition, such gestures demonstrate that politics and sport are not separated. “If Russia was deprived of [participating in] the World Cup over Ukraine, Iran had to be deprived, too,” Sahar said. “The world doesn’t care about us. I have never felt this lonely.”