Iran’s long-anticipated presence at the 2022 World Cup was repeatedly caught up in the protests sweeping all 31 provinces back home. The team went into the soccer tournament widely criticized for its lack of public support for the demonstrations, even though three players had been outspoken. “Shame on you who kill people so easily,” Sardar Azmoun, a forward, wrote to 5.1 million Instagram followers on September 25. “I don’t care if I’m sacked.” The national team rules restricted players’ ability to speak out on the protests, he said. His membership on the national team was “worth sacrificing for one strand of Iranian women’s hair.” Azmoun later deleted his comments and apologized in another post, but he continued supporting Iranian women on social media.
On September 28, Mehdi Taremi, a star striker, expressed shame on Instagram over the government’s violence against women. On October 9, he decried the crackdown. “Can you be a human being and not feel sick after seeing these heartbreaking videos? These days, after seeing the bitter pictures, I hate many of my compatriots,” he said in a post to his 4.6 million followers. “Violence cannot be a solution for anyone.”
Before the team left Tehran, President Ebrahim Raisi urged the men not to be distracted. “Be extremely careful in this regard. Don't let any current or issue disturb your focus and spend all your determination and efforts to make your country proud,” he said on November 14. “The effort of the national team on the field of competition is one of the achievements that can strengthen the unity and empathy of the great nation of Iran and fail the enemies.”
After arriving in Doha, coach Carlos Queiroz said that players were free to protest—as any team from any nation—within FIFA rules. The 11-member starting squad signaled its anger over the government crackdown by refusing to sing the national anthem before its first match with England on November 21.
But at its second match—a 2-0 win over Wales on November 25—the team sang along to the anthem. Conservative politicians had reportedly threatened them with consequences for remaining silent, though Taremi rejected reports that the team faced government pressure.
The Iran National Anthem plays at the FIFA World Cup ahead of their matchup vs Wales 🇮🇷 pic.twitter.com/T4ilXEAN9k— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 25, 2022
Other Iranian teams—basketball, water polo, sitting volleyball, and beach soccer—had also remained silent at major matches since the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. “Football and more or less all sports have always been very politicized in Iran,” Houchang Chehabi, who authored studies on the politics of Iranian football and U.S.-Iranian sports diplomacy, told The Iran Primer.
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Players were also outspoken in Doha, despite potential consequences to themselves or relatives. On November 19, three players—goalkeeper Hossein Hosseini, midfielder Vahid Amiri, and star striker Mehdi Taremi—began a press conference by offering condolences to victims in the demonstrations. “We want them to know that we are with them,” Hosseini said. Captain Ehsan Hajsafi said that the protesters “should know that we are with them” on November 20. “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy. I hope the conditions change to accept the expectations of the people.”
⚡️ BREAKING: #Iran football team captain defies regime, backs protests: “We have to accept that conditions in our country are not right & our people are not happy. They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions.” pic.twitter.com/SX4kenXiTZ— Hillel Neuer (@HillelNeuer) November 21, 2022
Some players deflected questions. The team was focused on the tournament and players’ “duty” to play soccer, not the domestic unrest, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, a midfielder, said at a press conference on November 17. Karim Ansarifard, a forward, and Morteza Pouraliganji, a defender, declined comment at a November 18 press conference. “We play for all men and women of our country,” Ansarifard said. “When I say people of our country, there's no exception.”
After the team’s loss to England, conservative media condemned Iran’s enemies for pressuring the team and fueling protests to interfere with its World Cup performance. “Iran 2 – England, Israel, Al Saud and traitors at home and abroad 6,” headlined Kayhan, a hardline daily. Publications also denounced Iranians who rejoiced at England’s victory.
Coach Queiroz expressed anger at the pressure on his players. “You don’t know what the kids have been experiencing behind the scenes just because they want to play football,” he said at a press conference after the match. “To those who come to disturb the team with issues that are not only about the football opinions, they’re not welcome. Let the kids play the game.”
In the past, athletes faced prosecution and even death sentences for questioning the government. In the early years after the 1979 revolution, the new theocratic government executed noted athletes, Chehabi said, including a wrestler, swimmer, equestrian, volleyball player, and gymnast. In 2022, Ali Karimi and Ali Daei, both former national soccer team captains, were among the first national sports figures to support the protests. “It is very difficult to predict what will happen because [the regime’s] red lines keep shifting,” added Chehabi, a Boston University historian.
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None of the famous or the important soccer clubs are private enterprises, Chehabi noted. “They are all owned by a statal or parastatal entity, which gives them obviously no autonomy and means that the government has all sorts of ways to put pressure on them.”
At the first match on November 21, some Iranian fans booed the national anthem. Demonstrators outside the stadium chanted, “Say her name, Mahsa Amini.” Some Iranians in the crowd wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Woman, Life, Freedom,” the rallying cry of the protesters, and raised posters of Mahsa Amini’s face. Others cheered the English team as it scored.
At the team’s second match on November 25, fans again booed the anthem. Some sobbed as the players sang along. Security at the stadium reportedly barred fans from bringing in flags, signs, clothes, or other items with slogans or imagery from the demonstrations. Pro-government fans yelled “The Islamic Republic” at people shouting “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Outside of the stadium, one group of fans screamed “Victory!” over people chanting Mahsa Amini’s name.
An Iran fan holds a shirt with the name of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old died days after being arrested and reportedly beaten by Iran’s morality police in September for allegedly not adhering to the nation’s dress code for women. pic.twitter.com/CuEAtc8BJj— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 25, 2022
Ramin Rezaeian, a defender, scored the team’s second goal and dedicated it to the Iranian people after the game. “This goal was a gift for my people in Iran,” he said. “Especially those who are suffering.” In an Instagram post that he later deleted, Rezaeian said, “I really didn’t know whether to laugh or to shed tears. I love the people of Iran from the bottom of my heart, you deserve the very best.”
Ramin Rezaeian dedicates his goal to the people of Iran 🇮🇷 pic.twitter.com/7dl0kJwAau— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 25, 2022
President Raisi and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lauded the national team for the win. “I would like to sincerely thank [Iran’s national football team] and the head coach for fighting bravely and bringing happiness with your victory to the people of our country,” Raisi said on November 25. On the following day, Khamenei added, “The Iranian National Team players made the Iranian nation happy. May God make them happy.”
Iranian athletes and a rights group called on FIFA to expel Iran in the run-up to the tournament. OpenStadiums, an organization pursuing greater access to sports events for women and an end to gender discrimination, published an open letter in late September. “Why would FIFA give the Iranian state a global stage, while it not only refuses to respect basic human rights, but is currently torturing and killing its own people? Where are the principles of FIFA’s statutes in this regard?”
The athletes—including a FIFA referee, judo star, futsal player, and others—used a Spanish law firm to lobby for the ban in mid-October. “Iran’s brutality and belligerence towards its own people has reached a tipping point, demanding an unequivocal and firm disassociation from the footballing and sports world,” the group said in a statement. Ukraine’s Football Association joined the calls to expel Iran in late October over the regime’s human rights violations and support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Connor Bradbury, a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, compiled this report.