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November 21, 2022 12:53 pm
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Iranian Soccer Fans Jeer National Anthem Prior to World Cup Clash With England in Qatar

avatar by Ben Cohen

Iranian soccer fans wearing T-shirts bearing the protest slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Photo: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

In unprecedented scenes at the World Cup in Qatar, Iranian fans loudly jeered their country’s national anthem as the national team stood grim-faced on the pitch prior to their opening clash against England on Monday.

Video posted by journalists covering the flagship soccer tournament showed fans booing and shouting over the anthem as it was played over the PA at the Khalifa International Stadium. Several fans were seen making thumbs-down gestures. A number carried signs in the colors of the Iranian flag or wore T-shirts that proclaimed “Women, Life, Freedom” — the main slogan of the historic protests currently rocking the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian players meanwhile stood still, wearing stony facial expressions and pointedly not singing the anthem. In a pre-match press conference, the team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, explicitly references the protests at home. “We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy, they are discontent,” Hajsafi said. “We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice or that we should not respect them. Whatever we have is theirs.”

England went on to rout Iran 6-2, in a match that resulted in 14 minutes of stoppage time after Iranian goalkeeper Majid Hosseini was carried off the field with concussion. In a measure of the ferocity of the anti-regime protests currently convulsing Iran, social media accounts posted cellphone videos of Iranians watching the match on television and delightedly cheering an England goal.

Some Iranian fans who carried protest signs said they were denied entry to the stadium by Qatari officials, the New York Times reported. Qatar had already come in for criticism for allegedly caving to Iranian demands after the media credentials of Iran International TV, a London-based anti-regime broadcaster, were canceled on the eve of the competition.

Official Iranian media outlets notably avoided the prominent display of their team’s humiliating defeat — the only occasion since a 6-1 loss to Turkey in 1950 that Iran has conceded six goals. In a tweet that followed the final whistle, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Persian-language Twitter feed observed simply, “[T]he defeat of the Islamic Republic.”

Monday’s game was already shrouded in controversy after FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, suddenly reneged on an earlier commitment to allow team captains to wear “One Love” armbands promoting the basic rights of the LGBTQ+ community. Under Qatar’s penal code, homosexuality is prohibited and members of the LGBTQ+ community are subjected to hefty prison terms and even, in the case of Muslims, the death penalty.

On Monday, FIFA informed participating teams that players who wore the armband would face disciplinary sanctions, including possible ejection from the pitch. A statement from seven national football associations protesting the decision stated: “We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband. However, we cannot put our players in the situation where they might be booked, or even forced to leave the field of play.”

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