The World Cup in Qatar is almost a home tournament for Iran, with only the narrow Persian Gulf separating the two nations.
But as they line up for the opening match against England on November 21, some Iranian players may feel uncomfortable wearing the tricolor flag and representing their country.
That’s assuming those players are selected for the team, and assuming the team itself makes it to Qatar; In the coming weeks, there is a lot of uncertainty for any sports organization representing the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, cities across Iran have been engulfed in chaos and violence.
Amini died after being arrested by the morality police for improperly wearing her compulsory hijab, and her fate sparked a women’s revolt that swept across the country.
Many women have publicly ditched their skimpy dresses, and their fiery rage shows no signs of abating.
It is the most serious challenge to the stability of the theocratic regime and, without a doubt, the most significant since it came to power in 1979.
Some have compared what is happening in Iran to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and as defiant chants of ‘Death to the Dictator’ are heard on street corners from Tehran to Shiraz – the aim of the movement is clear, to topple Iran’s supreme leader. Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and effectively ending the Islamic republic.
In response, the government’s repression has been brutal.
The Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) have arrested thousands of protesters while silencing their voices by shutting down the Internet.
And yet, despite the internet blackout, more and more videos are emerging of protesters being chased, shot, beaten or violently thrown to the ground.
CNN has not been able to verify the exact death toll, but dozens of young people are believed to have died.
In recent years, some of the country’s top athletes have voiced their opposition to the government.
Following the execution of fighter Navid Afkari, who was found guilty of killing a security guard in the previous uprising in 2018 and hanged in Shiraz two years later, a group of fighters, karatekas, judokas and soccer players came together to form United for Navid. the campaign
Afkari’s family and supporters have always argued that he was innocent and that his trial was a sham. Now, many of Iran’s revered top athletes have unofficially joined the protesters fighting for their rights in the streets.
As 27-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun wrote on his social media account during Iran’s preparations for the upcoming World Cup, “due to national team regulations, we couldn’t say anything until training was over.”
He noted that public opposition to the government could cost him a place in the World Cup, but he says losing a professional goal would be a good reason.
“This is worth sacrificing for a hair of Iranian women,” Azmoun wrote in an Instagram story: “Shame on you for killing people so easily. Long live Iranian women.”
After the talks, many doubted that Azmoun would be allowed to represent Iran on the field, so it was a surprise when he came on as a substitute and scored the equalizer in Iran’s international friendly against African champions Senegal. . Notably, he did not celebrate.
Former fighter Sardar Pashaei, executive director of the United for Navid campaign, says he was forced to flee Iran to the United States in 2008.
In an interview with CNN, his voice cracked with emotion as he spoke proudly of his sister, a human rights activist, being arrested for joining the protests.
Pashaei believes the mood in the national soccer team is divided between pro-regime players who want to play in Qatar and others who cannot comfortably play under the banner of a regime that has so ruthlessly oppressed their people.
“A lot of people don’t consider this team as their national team,” explained Pashaei. “They think it is the group of the Islamic Republic, it represents the government, not the people. And many athletes think the same.”
He added that players sympathetic to the regime are trying to argue that sports and politics should be kept apart, but Pashaei rejected that sentiment, saying: “We know everything in Iran is political.”
On behalf of the United for Navid campaign, Pashaei wrote to soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, calling for Iran to be suspended from the World Cup.
In the September 29 letter, Pashaei reminded FIFA that Sahar Khodaya, a young Iranian woman known as the ‘Blue Girl’ who died in 2019, was denied entry to a football stadium to watch her favorite team FC Esteghlal play.
He was arrested and sentenced to prison, but he set himself on fire outside the courthouse and later died of his injuries.
Pashaei reminded FIFA that in February it suspended all Russian international and club teams from competitions “until further notice” over the invasion of Ukraine and called for similar sanctions to be applied to Iran.
“Iran is brutally killing and torturing protesters and oppressing women by criminalizing watching football or showing some hair. FIFA’s silence is an acceptance of these human rights violations.’
Within 24 hours, another human rights group – ‘Open Stadiums’ – also called on FIFA to suspend Iran, saying, “The Iranian FA is not only complicit in the crimes of the regime, it is a direct threat to the safety of female fans. In Iran and wherever our national team plays in the world.”
So far, FIFA has remained silent, not responding to CNN’s request for comment.
Several Iranian footballers have discreetly expressed their sympathy for the protesters by changing their social media avatars to black backgrounds or the black lines of Iran’s geographical borders.
Others have been much more significant; Speaking after the club’s last game against Tractor SC, Persepolis FC midfielder Soroush Rafiei spoke about the constant protests and scrutiny of footballers, saying he and his teammates have no energy or interest in talking or even playing football.
Addressing the people’s fight for women’s rights, Rafiei addressed the country’s strict Islamic code: “Your wife wears a hijab and we respect that, but who are you to tell my wife how to dress?”
Following their social media comments, former national team players Hamidreza Ali Asgari, Kaveh Rezaei and Hossein Mahini are believed to have been arrested or detained for questioning; CNN could not verify the reports coming from Iran.
The United for Navid campaign told CNN that Iran’s international record goalscorer, Ali Daei, has had his passport confiscated, and former national team captain Ali Karimi has so angered the government over his support of protesters as his millions of Instagram followers. that he has been accused of inciting sedition.
Karimi lives in Dubai, but local reports indicated that his home in Iran had been seized by the government.
It is not only football players who are fighting the regime, many other athletes have decided that they cannot represent their country in good conscience.
Handball player Sajjad Esteki, women’s rugby captain Fereshteh Sarani, fencer Mojtaba Abedini Shourmasti and Taekwondo player Mahsa Sadeghi have all quit their national teams in protest.
Respected ex-wrestler Rasoul Khadem Azghadi expressed his support for all the athletes who took action.
“At a time when people are facing problems and protests, we should be happy that our national champions are with them,” Azghadi wrote on social media. “In doing so, the weight of tensions is being removed from the shoulders of these people.”
According to Pashaei, the athletes who are speaking out have less to lose than the protesters who are facing bullets and sticks in the street.
As the uprising enters its third week, the situation on the streets of Iran remains highly volatile.
In a few weeks, the World Cup will begin, and Iran will enter Group B.
In addition to their opening game against England, Iran will also play Wales and then the United States, evoking memories of their 2-1 win over an old foe, ‘The Great Satan’, at the 1998 World Cup in Lyon.
Whether the players agree with their governments or not, the teams on the field will represent diametrically opposed ideological views.
US government officials have condemned what they call a “horrendous” crackdown on protesters and Secretary of State Antony Blinken says Iran “must end its use of violence against women for exercising what should be a fundamental freedom”.
When the two nations meet in Doha on November 29, a place in the knockout stages could be at stake, although FIFA may find that the story is not strictly limited to what happens on the pitch.