Iran players stay silent for anthem in apparent support for protests

World Cup footballers did not sing before match against England in apparent show of support for protesters back home

Not a single member of the Iranian team sang their country’s national anthem at the start of their World Cup match with England, in an attempt to distance themselves from their government.

One official on the touchline sang, only serving to highlight his isolation, but there was heavy booing of the anthem by the large Iranian crowd inside the stadium.

Some of the spectators held placards saying “Women, life and freedom”. Others chanted the name of Ali Karimi, the Iranian former player and coach who has become an outspoken supporter of the protests and who on Saturday called for Iranians to take to the streets over the way in which the army had poured into the Iranian Kurdish town of Mahabad.

The silence of the team during the anthem was openly reported in reformist Iranian press, which described the first-half performance of the team as a humiliation. The pro-government Fars news agency made no mention of the protest in extensive coverage of the game, which Iran lost 6-2.

There was some suggestion that Qatari TV directors cut away from the line of Iranian footballers as they refused to sign the anthem. Schools had been closed to allow Iranians to watch the game on TV.

The match came as security forces were firing at protesters in the predominantly Kurdish cities of Piranshahr in the province of West Azerbaijan, and Javanrud, in Kermanshah. Photos showed bodies on the streets, with reports of dozens injured. Across the cities in Iranian Kurdistan, fires were lit and chants of death to the dictator were heard.

There have been reports of 11 people killed in nearby Mahabad over Saturday and Sunday, with heavy military equipment including armoured vehicles patrolling the streets and firing into buildings in what was described as a form of martial law.

Human rights groups say more than 450 people have died since protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurd who died in police custody after being arrested for not wearing the hijab in conformity with Iranian law. As many as 55 security force members have been killed.

The anthem protest may yet have repercussions for the players when they return to Iran, but Carlos Queiroz, their Portuguese manager, had said the players were free to make a protest.

In an interview before the game, Ehsan Hajsafi, the Iranian captain, opened his remarks by saying “in the name of the god of rainbows”, a phrase uttered by a 10-year-old boy, Kian Pirfalk, who was killed by Iranian security forces.

Hajsafi said he was standing by the Iranian people and offered condolences to the grieving families in Iran.

The Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun wrote on Instagram: “At worst I’ll be kicked out of the national team, which is a small price to pay for even a single strand of Iranian women’s hair. Shame on you for killing the people.”

Posters of the team have been torn down in parts of Tehran. Video showed that after England’s third goal against the Iranian team, the residents of Kohsar region in Tehran cheered and chanted the slogan “Death to the dictator”.

The protests show the extent to which Iran’s sporting stars and celebrities are refusing to back the heavy-handed repression being meted out by the security forces.

Over the weekend, authorities arrested two prominent actors who had expressed solidarity with the country’s protest movement and removed their headscarves in public, according to state media.

Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were detained after being summoned by prosecutors looking into their “provocative” social media posts, Iran’s state-run Irna news agency said.

On Saturday, Ghaziani published a video on Instagram of her removing the hijab. “Maybe this will be my last post,” she wrote. “From this moment on, whatever happens to me, know that as always, I am with the Iranian people until my last breath.”

Iranian sports stars ranging from wrestlers to archers and rock climbers have mounted protests at various international sporting events, including refusing to wear the hijab. One of Iran’s most prominent football commentators, Farhad Fakhrbakhsh, quit.

At the weekend, the head of the boxing federation, Hossein Souri, and two youth team boxers failed to return to Iran with their team, instead seeking political asylum, prompting the conservative newspaper Kayhan to demand the authorities take greater care in vetting senior officials in sports federations.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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