The country is in fact currently in the middle of a series of protests and overall civil unrest. It all started on September 16 this year after a 22 year old woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the Guidance Patrol (a religious police force tasked with ensuring that no one in Iran, especially women flout their extremely strict dress codes) died in a Tehran hospital. Amini was arrested for wearing what the Guidance Patrol considered an ‘improper’ hijab.
According to some eyewitness reports, Amini was beaten by Guidance Patrol officers. This has been subsequently refuted by the Iranian authorities.
The protests spread from Amini’s hometown in Saqqez to other cities in Kurdistan. According to a CNN report, a Norway based human rights group has stated that as many as 378 protesters have already been killed. Another 14,000, according to the report that quotes a UN official, have been arrested across the country.
This is what courage looks like The Iranian football team refuses to sing the national anthem on the biggest stage in… https://t.co/GL5pSQz7mV
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) 1669040595000
According to many, these protests are hugely significant.
These have all been acts of defiance. And on Monday we witnessed another example of that – albeit in an extremely ‘silent’ way – Iranian footballers choosing to stay silent while their National Anthem was played out ahead of their FIFA World Cup opener vs England.
England won the match on the pitch, but the Iranians won hearts across the world for their act of defiance in support of the protests back home. It was a brave thing to do, a very brave thing indeed.
The Iranian captain, Ehasan Hajsafihad told the media in a pre-match press conference a day before their game vs England – “I want to say – condolences to all the grieving families in Iran…We want them to know we are with them and by their side and share their pain.”
Those are some very brave words when you consider just how brutally the protests in Iran are being handled by the state machinery.
It’s also very interesting that the Iranians are standing up for what they believe in, in a country that also has some very strict rules and regulations – Qatar. So much so that a number of international team captains have been stopped, pretty much at the last minute, from wearing the ‘OneLove’ armbands. At least 7 captains were planning to wear these bands to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
However, homosexuality is against the law in Qatar. Both men and women can face strict action as per the penal code of 2004 which criminalises same-sex activity of any kind. These can in fact see a person being imprisoned for as long as 7 years.
Iran’s World Cup captain: “In the name of God, creator of rainbows… I want to say condolences to all the grieving f… https://t.co/seIa51fjjb
— Caroline Darya Framke (@carolineframke) 1668995738000
It’s no surprise then that FIFA suddenly issued a diktat that any player wearing the OneLove armbands will be shown a yellow card. Two yellows would mean a straight red. But was that a threat big enough to make some of the biggest superstars of world football back down? The captains of teams like England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, as well as their individual football associations, certainly thought so.
“You don’t want the captain to start the match with a yellow card. That is why it is with a heavy heart that we as a UEFA working group … and as a team had to decide to abandon our plan” – That’s what the Royal Dutch Football Association, the KNVB, said in a statement. Apparently, the Dutch were told, just hours before the kick-off of their tournament opener vs Senegal that skipper Virgil van Dijk would be shown a yellow card if he walked onto the pitch wearing the OneLove armband.
Could they not have taken on FIFA on this? After all, it’s something they believe in, right?
As the 7 big footballing powerhouses of Europe chose to play ball and toe the official line, the Iranian footballers refused to change their plans of a silent protest.
Another last minute u-turn that infuriated fans was the sudden ban on the sale of beer (all the alcohol available) inside the stadiums. Alcohol is available now only in certain fan parks and the hospitality suites (corporate boxes etc) of the 8 venues. Drinking in public areas is strictly prohibited in Qatar. However they chose to enforce this ban right before the tournament began and most fans had already arrived. And FIFA went along with it, despite the possibility of having to face some rather uncomfortable questions from one of their major sponsors – Budweiser – who have been one of the official sponsors of the World Cup since the 1986 edition in Mexico. According to some reports, the deal with Budweiser, who has exclusive rights to sell alcohol at the tournament, is worth 75 million Euros.
Iran players line-up prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match against England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
And then let’s not forget the fans, who have suddenly been told that there will be no beer available. Across the globe, in most countries, for most sports the sale of beer is allowed in the stadiums. This along with the fact that the fans in the stadiums are not allowed to wear any kind of clothing that falls under the category of ‘revealing’.
Interestingly, in the 2014 edition in Brazil, FIFA had made the hosts change their in-stadia beer rules. In 2003, Brazil banned the sale of beer in their football stadiums in an effort to fight hooliganism in the stands. Ahead of the 2014 edition of the World Cup, FIFA told Brazil that they had to lift that ban because beer sales are an intrinsic facet of the World Cup’s traditions. They were told that it’s non-negotiable. Subsequently the Brazilian Congress was forced to sign a new bill that effectively ended an 11 year ban. And beer flowed in Brazilian stadiums.
In Qatar however, FIFA have gone the other way – Bowing down to the host country’s demands. What happened to long standing traditions here?
In the middle of all this, the Iranians stood tall – standing up for what they believe in and not being scared of showing it. There was no FIFA diktat against singing their National Anthem, but they know what is happening back home – and that, let’s face it, is very very scary. And yet they decided to stick to their convictions, not afraid of any possible sanctions against them – either now or when they go back home.
They did what some of the biggest superstars of Europe and FIFA haven’t been able to or chose not to do – stand up for what they believe in.