Crackdown puts Iran’s loyalties on the line before Qatar World Cup kick-off

Sport

The biggest question for Iran before the World Cup is not how the team will perform against England, the USA and Wales but how the players will behave in Qatar against a domestic backdrop of protests, violent reaction from the regime and calls for the country to be thrown out of the tournament.

Hints can be found in recent domestic games. On Wednesday one of Iran’s biggest clubs, Esteghlal, won the Super Cup, but when presented with the trophy, most of the squad did not celebrate. State television quickly cut away. A month earlier their Tehran rivals Persepolis wore black wristbands in a league game against Tractor – only the international midfielder Mehdi Torabi did not. Few were surprised given that during a crackdown against protesters in 2019, Torabi scored and lifted his shirt to reveal the message: “The only way to save the country is to obey the leader.” He later insisted it was his idea.

On 2 October, when a penalty was awarded to Persepolis with two minutes left, Torabi, who is not the designated taker, stepped up. His teammates (though not the fans because the stadiums are empty over concerns that they could become hotbeds of protests) braced themselves for another pro-government slogan but he missed and was immediately substituted.

In Esteghlal’s case, the players were perhaps mindful of criticism that greeted Mehdi Taremi in September. The Porto striker scored the only goal for Iran in a 1-0 win over Uruguay, finishing off a flowing move and giving Team Melli, who struggle to arrange friendlies against strong opposition, an impressive win. When Taremi celebrated in front of the small number of fans in the Vienna stadium, it sparked widespread criticism on social media at home. The popularity of the team’s star player has yet to recover despite recent posts more supportive of the people.

Perhaps the Esteghlal players thought there wasn’t much to celebrate. On 13 September Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police for “unsuitable attire”. Days later, she died in police custody, and protests up and down Iran are being met by force, coercion and arrests from a regime desperate to maintain its grip on power. According to human rights organisations, 253 protesters have been killed. Thousands have been arrested.

“This is the team of the Islamic Republic, this is not Iran’s team and it is definitely not my national team,” a Tehran-based female football fan called Zeinab told the Observer. She thinks Iran should not go to Qatar. Others agree, including the Ukraine Football Association, which asked Fifa to throw Iran out for supplying Russia with weapons. Open Stadiums, a women’s rights group that has campaigned for years for female fans to be allowed into stadiums in Iran, wrote an open letter to the world governing body calling for Iran’s expulsion.

Carlos Queiroz is of the opposite opinion. The former Real Madrid manager returned in September for a second spell as head coach, replacing Dragan Skocic as Iran attempt to get out of the group stage for the first time, at the sixth attempt. Before his third World Cup with the country, Queiroz said last week that there was no debate. “Most of the Iranian people have a clear answer to this campaign,” he said. “They want their national football team to participate in the 2022 World Cup.”

There are critics of the regime who agree and do not see any benefits in more international isolation. Some say the tournament will provide a valuable opportunity for players to show their support for the protesters and their opposition to the regime on the world stage.

The players are in a difficult position. There are likely to be consequences, or threats, to their families and loved ones if they speak out against a regime that has been in power for 43 years and is not about to let go quietly. In September, Iran’s chief justice, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, promised punishment for “those who became famous thanks to support from the system [and] have joined the enemy when times were difficult, instead of being with the people.”

This warning came after Sardar Azmoun, one of the team’s biggest stars, used Instagram to express frustration about the regime’s violence. “The ultimate [punishment] is to be kicked out of the national team, which is a small price to pay for even a single strand of Iranian women’s hair,” he wrote. “Shame on you for easily killing the people and viva women of Iran. Long live Iranian women!”

Days later the Bayer Leverkusen forward deleted the post. “I have to apologise to the players of the national team,” he said, “because my hasty action caused my dear friends to be annoyed, and some players of the national team were insulted by users, which is not fair in any way. The mistake was mine.”

That suggests Azmoun’s opinions are not shared by all his teammates. The unity of the squad had been fractured with the drawn-out summer coaching change, with Taremi among those in the pro-Queiroz camp and Azmoun supporting Skocic, who had led the team through qualification.

There may well be divisions again. Torabi is the only open supporter of the regime but there may well be others who agree or don’t want to get involved. It has happened before. In a 2009 World Cup qualifier in Seoul, most, but not all, of Iran’s starting XI lined up wearing green armbands in apparent support of the “Green Movement” which was in full flow back home.

There seems to be more at stake this time. The World Cup may be insignificant in the grand scheme of the battle for Iran, but it could still be big enough to play a small part in determining the nation’s future.