For the sixth time in the nation’s history, Iran have qualified for the men’s soccer World Cup, but they are not enjoying the same support at home that they have in years gone by.
Preparations for the tournament in neighboring Qatar have been marked by a feeling of disaffection between the Iranian national team and its fans. The main reason is that for large parts of the population, the team has failed to decisively distance itself from the brutal suppression by the regime of the people’s revolutionary freedom movement.
The image of Iran’s top footballers has suffered as a result and, in contrast to previous World Cup appearances, the vast majority of Iranian fans do not consider the national team to be a valid ambassador on the international stage.
Even within “Team Melli” itself, the political situation has led to deep divisions, with players reacting differently to people’s calls for freedom, democracy, self-determination and to combating various kinds of state-operated discrimination.
Turbulent training camp
The divide had already become clear during the national team’s training camp in St. Pölten, Austria, in September, which started just days after the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, killed during her arrest by the Iranian morality police for not “properly” wearing her hijab. The uprising against the totalitarian regime has since escalated.
After critical remarks against the government from German Bundesliga team Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun, most other national team players took rather half-hearted positions of solidarity with the protests. Yet their reticence was interpreted by many football fans as a lack of support from the players.
“This is the team of the Islamic Republic and not that of the Iranian people,” said former goalkeeper Sosha Mokani, who made five appearances for Iran from 2012 to 2018. “FIFA must exclude the team from the World Cup.”
In reference to the estimated 14,000 people detained in Iran over the course of the current protests, Mokani said: “The national team players must unite in demanding the release of all arrested protesters as a condition for their participation in World Cup matches.”
Other stars also called on players to boycott the World Cup in Qatar. “If I were an Iranian international,” said popular French-Iraninian tennis player Mansour Bahrami, “I would not compete for the Islamic Republic at the World Cup.”
Former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi, a supporter of the protests and a long-time critic of the Iranian regime, has been charged over his social media activity and publicly rejected an invitation to go to Qatar.
Calls for World Cup exclusion
For many months now, the Iranian football association (IRIFF) has been under observation, with FIFA threatening suspension from international competitions.
The reasons are complex, with the regime’s military support of Russia in its war against Ukraine and the lack of free access for women to Iranian stadiums weighing just as heavily in this context as the violent suppression at home.
On top of that, the interference of politics in the affairs of the football association, as seen recently with the allegedly manipulated election of President Mehdi Taj, is an irritating issue for FIFA, a journalist for a daily sports newspaper who wishes to remain anonymous told DW.
World Cup as a platform for protests
And yet, regardless of a possible World Cup exclusion, Iran’s participation in Qatar is also seen by many as an opportunity to further spread the Iranian protests against the regime.
“The non-sporting fringe issues with the Iranian national team will be the focus of attention during the World Cup,” Babak Keyhanfar, a coach with Bundesliga side Mainz who has Iranian roots, told DW.
“It will be extremely difficult for most Iranian fans to focus on football and tune out the highly sensitive social developments in their own country during the World Cup.”
Many of Iran’s national team players are expected to increasingly deviate from their restraint during the World Cup in order to use the environment to make clear their critical stance toward those in power at home. This was already evident during a recent international friendly against Nicaragua, a World Cup warm-up that Iran won 1-0.
Only two of the eleven players sang along with the Islamic Republic’s anthem, and the team refrained from celebrating Mehdi Torabi’s winning goal.
National team coach Carlos Queiroz stressed that players should be allowed to make protest gestures. “Everyone has the right to express themselves,” the Portuguese said.
Iran’s group at the World Cup — they are set to play England, Wales and the United States in Group B — adds another potentially explosive layer, with all three opposing nations considered long-time political adversaries of the Islamic Republic.
From a purely sporting point of view, many in Iran’s football community give the country a decent chance of reaching their first-ever knockout stage. Apart from heavy favorites England, Wales and the US are seen as beatable.
But Iran’s participation at the World Cup is set to be about much more than what happens on the pitch.
This article was adapted from German