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World Cup 2022: Iranian team's loyalties questioned after singing of national anthem

Iranian fans have held signs or waved banners in support of the protests and booed the national team when they sang their national anthem ahead of their clash against Wales
An Iran supporter with her face made up to show tears of blood poses for photographs ahead of the match between Wales and Iran at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on 25 November 2022 (AFP)
By Reza Khaasteh in Tehran

Moments before their opening match at the Qatar World Cup, Iran's national team stood side-by-side in the age-old tradition of singing the national anthem.

But instead of singing the anthem aloud, the players took a muted stand - standing with their arms slung over each other's shoulders in an apparent show of solidarity with the months-long protest movement that has gripped the country.

As the camera panned across the faces of Team Melli, not one player sang the national anthem, as a chorus of boos echoed from the stands.

'Team Melli players tried to recover their credibility, which has been lost due to their lack of - or lacklustre - support for the popular protest'

- Arash Sohrabi, journalist

Ahead of the match, chants of "Say her name, Mahsa Amini," reverberated outside the Khalifa International Stadium.

While the match ended in a 6-2 victory for England, the Iranian team's message was received loud and clear.

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The protests in Iran, which started on 17 September following the death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, have inspired many songs in Iran, but the national anthem - or as the protesters call it "the Islamic Republic's anthem" – is not one of them.

Celebrities, including artists and athletes, have voiced solidarity with the hundreds of protesters that have been killed, with some being summoned or even arrested, such as Voria Ghafouri, who plays as a defender for the Khuzestan Foolad soccer team.

Ghafouri was arrested last week on charges of "launching propaganda against the Islamic Republic and insulting Iran's national football team".

Ahead of the World Cup, Ghafouri told the government on social media to stop killing Kurdish people.

'Recover credibility'

Team Melli had faced widespread criticism from the protest movement over their reluctance to publicly speak out against the government crackdown and their meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.

Earlier this month, some of the players could be seen smiling and laughing when they met Raisi in the presidential palace, while photos published by state media showed the team bowing in his response.

In response, some members of the leaderless protest movement set fire in Tehran to government banners of the national team.

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While the decision to remain silent against England was described by some western commentators, such as Piers Morgan, as a "courageous act of protest," among Iranians the reaction was mixed. 

"Team Melli players tried to recover their credibility, which has been lost due to their lack of - or lacklustre - support for the popular protest," journalist Arash Sohrabi told Middle East Eye. 

"However, their gimmick turned out to be ultimately in vain as Iranians saw through them and cheered their humiliating defeat on the streets," he added, referring to reports and videos of some Iranians who celebrated the national team's defeat.

Ammar Maleki, an assistant professor of Comparative Politics at Tilburg University, described the players' decision as "opportunistic," accusing them of being "not sincere in showing serious support for the people".

"Many of them had not sung the Islamic Republic's anthem in previous games either," Maleki told MEE, echoing a point raised in an article in the Javan newspaper linked with the Revolutionary Guard.

"The national anthem, which had not been sung in previous World Cups and in recent games for reasons other than dissatisfaction, is now presented as a show of support for Iranian people! This means that our athletes, under the pressure of the media, (remained silent to) pay a low price to get out of this pressure," the article said.

'When fans boo, the team suffers'

Still, Sina Azodi, an Iranian scholar and adjunct professor of international relations at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, said the players' action "was a genuine attempt to first show solidarity with the people of Iran, and by extension buy some support for the team which has been unfairly under malicious attacks".

However, in a striking u-turn, some of the Iranian players sang the national anthem ahead of the game against Wales on Friday.

On social media, some Iranians suggested the players sang the anthem for the safety of their families and themselves.

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"In the Wales match, Team Melli players seemed to have been either coerced or convinced into lip-syncing the anthem, perhaps to ensure a handsome welcome by the authorities," Sohrabi told MEE.

However, others said the jubilant celebrations after scoring two goals against the Dragons reinforced the view that the team's decision to remain silent in the England match was part of the Islamic Republic's propaganda efforts.

"There is a narrative that the Islamic Republic wants to spread with this programmed gesture: that Iranians are free to protest without serious repercussions. This is far from the truth," said a Twitter account linked with the protest movement.

In an interview with the reformist Etemaad newspaper, Ali Latifi, a former Iranian national team striker, said despite the reasoning, the team had satisfied neither parties with its antics and could suffer on the pitch as a result.

"When some spectators boo, the team suffers," he said after the England game. "Even though it was not broadcast on the radio, the players hear it and it affects their mood."

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