Chris Jones is in Qatar to cover the Men’s World Cup for CBC Sports.
In a men’s World Cup plagued by political and cultural tensions, the Iranian national team returned to their defiance of their country’s regime by singing the anthem ahead of Friday’s game against Wales.
Iran’s players hit the headlines as they stood silent with impassive faces during their anthem ahead of their opener in Qatar, a 6-2 loss to England on Monday.
After the Welsh belt Land of my fathers at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on a scorching afternoon in Doha, almost all the Iranian players sang their anthem, but with less enthusiasm. Some of their lips barely moved.
The crowd, which had greeted the team with a standing ovation when they came out for their warm-ups, responded with a loud mix of cheers and whistles throughout. Large screens at the stadium showed Iranian fans openly crying during and after the restitution.
Protests continued in Iran after the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd, in September. She was arrested by the vice squad for allegedly breaking Iran’s strict dress rules.
According to the United Nations, at least 14,000 protesters have since been arrested.
The Iranian team had already navigated a controversial preparation for the tournament. A proposed June friendly against Canada in Vancouver was canceled after widespread condemnation.
Ukraine then called for Iran to be banned from the World Cup for supplying missiles and other weapons to Russia. FIFA, the sport’s governing body, declined the request.
Some domestic critics also wanted Iranian players to go into exile from Qatar.
The team, which had previously worn black jackets over their uniforms ahead of a pre-tournament exhibition against Senegal, attempted to find common ground, taking the field while making it known their hearts were at home.
“First of all, I would like to express my condolences to all the bereaved families in Iran,” captain Ehsan Hajsafi said at the team’s opening press conference in Doha. “They need to know that we are with them, that we support them and that we sympathize with them.”
Mehdi Taremi, who scored both goals for Iran in their first defeat, told reporters that the players were not threatened by the authorities after the game against England and would decide for themselves whether they had to sing before the game against Wales.
“I don’t like to talk about political issues, but we are under no pressure,” Taremi said. “We came to play football, not just us but all the players here in Qatar.”
Iran’s dramatic 2-0 win over Wales – Rouzbeh Cheshmi scored in the dying minutes of added time before Ramin Rezaeian netted another for good measure – could provide the team with cover policy, as well as greater visibility.
The Iranians will play their final match of the group stage against the Americans on November 29. A place in the round of 16 will be at stake.
The stakes for them were already remarkably high. Government loyalists vilified the team for not singing the anthem ahead of the game against England, leading to speculation the players could be arrested on their return. Two of Friday’s starters play in Iran’s national league and find themselves in a particularly difficult position.
“We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem and our flag,” said Mehdi Chamran, the conservative chairman of Tehran city council.
Concern over retaliation brought to mind the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when it was feared that the North Korean side, who lost all three of their group stage matches, including a 7-0 loss to Portugal, be punished for its performance on the international scene.
Iranian media reported that a former national team player, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested on Thursday after a training session with his professional club for spreading “propaganda” against the government.
Ghafouri, of Kurdish origin, last played for Iran in 2019.
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