Why the World Cup is set to become a platform for protests for Wales’ group opponents Iran
Matches dwarfed by off-field events are becoming a fixture of Wales’ World Cup journey.
After qualifying in an emotional play-off against a Ukraine team roared on by supporters, many of whom had recently arrived as refugees, the group stage is set to see Rob Page’s men take on Iran amid a deadly crackdown on women’s rights protestors in the country.
At least 304 people, including 41 children, have been killed since mass demonstrations broke out in response to the death of 22-year-old Zhina Amini in September at the hands of Iran’s morality police, according to figures published by the Iran Human Rights NGO.
And after calls to ban Iran from the World Cup were ignored by FIFA, attention has now turned to using the tournament as a platform on which to raise the voices of those taking to the streets.
“Strong international reactions are important for the Iranian people and strongly disliked by the regime. A ban from the World Cup cannot be censored,” Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of Iran Human Rights, told Nation.Cymru.
“On the other hand, one thing is even stronger than a ban and that is if the team shows up and in protest to the regime’s brutal crackdown on the people, denies playing or shows such a strong gesture that can’t be censored.”
Iran’s repressive regime, which has ruled the country since the Islamic revolution in 1979, has good reason to be nervous about such a prospect.
All but two of Iran’s players refused to sing the anthem of the Islamic Republic ahead of their warm-up match against Nicaragua in Tehran on Thursday, with most keeping their heads bowed throughout.
— Gol Bezan (@GolBezan) November 10, 2022
Players have also been showing their support for the protests by wearing black wristbands and posting messages of support on social media.
Bayern Leverkusen midfielder Sardar Azmoun, the ‘Iranian Messi’, has been the most outspoken of the current squad. During a pre-World Cup team camp in September, he wrote on Instagram: “I don’t care if I’m sacked. Shame on you for killing people so easily. Viva Iranian women.”
Azmoun, who is of turkmen ethnicity, is one of a number of players representing Iran’s minority groups which have been discriminated against under the regime. Many believe the death of Zhina Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police was in part due to her Kurdish identity.
Azmoun was relegated to the bench for Iran’s match against Senegal two days later but came on to score the equaliser, underlining the difficulty for the regime in seeking to silence dissidents while at the same time attempting to use the national team as a propaganda tool to distract from the protests.
Another Team Melli star, Mehdi Teremi, the FC Porto striker who is currently joint second top scorer in this season’s Champion’s League, wrote: “My heartfelt condolences to all the bereaved families. The people of my land deserve the best. Hoping for a better tomorrow.”
The stance taken by the players has led many to believe the team’s participation in the tournament could be more effective than a ban or a boycott.
“I fully expect there to be protestors in Qatar and also expect the players to continue to show their solidarity with the ongoing movement,” said Iranian football expert, Darren Zarandi, who is a contributor to the TeamMelliTalk podcast.
“Banning Iran from the World Cup would only help the regime and hurt the cause that is asking for as much publicity and attention as possible.
“If you take all the facts into account of having players who are vastly on the side of the people, who have a platform of 5 billion people to leverage, and also the impacts the games historically have in Iran when people gather into big groups and celebrate, you have all evidence you need to know that Iran’s appearance at the World Cup can only fuel this movement.”
The regime is doing everything it can to dissuade the team from taking a stand.
Former Bayern Munich playmaker and Iran captain Ali Karimi has been charged in absentia for “acting against national security” over his support for the protests and his friends recently raised the alarm over an attempt by Iranian authorities to kidnap him from Dubai.
The Iranian men’s beach football team also faced sanctions after making a stand when they beat Brazil 2-1 in the final of the Intercontinental Cup against Brazil earlier this month.
Saeed Piramoon celebrated scoring Iran’s second goal with a gesture imitating the hair cutting protests being made by women in Iran and at solidarity protests around the world. The team also refused to sing the anthem or celebrate their victory.
سعید پیرامون بازیکن تیمملی فوتبال ساحلی ایران پس از زدن گل به برزیل در مسابقات فینال جام بین قارهای حرکت نمادینی انجام داده که مورد توجه قرار گرفته است.
او به صورت نمادین موهای بلند خود را قیچی میکند pic.twitter.com/EJ4FEDSxSO
— BBC NEWS فارسی (@bbcpersian) November 6, 2022
Afterwards, the Iranian Football Federation said the team would be “dealt with” and journalists were prevented from speaking to the team as arrived at Tehran airport.
Iranian state TV also censored the protests. Some activists fear the same will be the case with any protests at the World Cup.
Darya Safai, an Iranian-born member of the Belgian parliament, has done more than anyone to ensure all Iranian football teams can support their team by founding the ‘Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums’ campaign.
The stand taken by the Iranian men’s national team in support of that campaign played a part in ending the ban on forcing the regime to end their ban on women entering stadiums in 2019.
However, Safai told Nation.Cymru she still believes banning Iran from all FIFA competitions would deal the greatest blow to the regime.
“This can be a moment for the world community to say it doesn’t accept countries which have gender apartheid and discrimination for so long and now kills people who take part in legitimate protest,” she said.
“FIFA did it against South Africa – why not against Iran? There have been many children killed – is that not enough for FIFA and the world to say enough is enough?”
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