During the opening match against England at the FIFA World Cup on Monday, Iran’s national men’s soccer team chose not to sing their national anthem in an apparent show of support for the ongoing protests back home.
All 11 starting players stood silent while the Iranian anthem played inside the Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar.
The nationwide protests against Iran’s clerical leaders, which were sparked by the alleged killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini by the country’s “morality police,” are now entering their third month. Since the protests began, 17,451 protesters have been detained and 426 have been killed, according to the latest figures by the Human Rights Activists News Agency, or HRANA.
Many protesters speculated whether players representing IR Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, would use the event as a platform to show solidarity with the movement.
On Sunday, defender Ehsan Hajsafi, who plays for AEK Athens, was the first member to speak out in support of the protests. “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” Hajsafi said at a news conference. “We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.”
“They should know that we are with them,” he continued, referring to the protesters. “And we support them. And we sympathize with them regarding the conditions.”
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Fans of the team in Qatar told the BBC they are there to support “real Iranian people,” and not the national team. They also planned to boo their national anthem, which they said did not represent “real Iranian people.”
Other Iranian sporting teams have also expressed their support with acts of defiance, or by not signing the national anthem. These include an Iranian archer who removed her headscarf following a tournament in Tehran; Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without a headscarf in South Korea; and the national water polo team, which chose not to sing the national anthem at the Asian Water Polo Championships last week.
According to state news agencies, Iran’s deputy sports minister Maryam Kazemipour said that some Iranian female athletes had acted against Islamic norms and apologized for their actions. And an Iranian cleric in the northwestern city of Urmia called for the punishment of athletes who refrain from singing the anthem, referring to the men’s water polo team, during Friday prayers.
The Iranian regime has executed several athletes for expressing political dissent in the past. In 2020, Iran executed 27-year-old champion wrestler Navid Afkari after accusing the athlete of killing a security guard during anti-government protests in 2018 (a charge rejected by Afkari’s family). The execution drew widespread condemnation, including from the United States and the European Union. During the late 1980s, when Iran executed thousands of political prisoners, the captain of Iran’s women’s national volleyball team Foruzan Abdi was also arrested on charges of supporting the opposition group and sentenced to five years in prison. Abdi was not released after she completed her sentence, and in the summer of 1988, she was hanged in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Several Iranian female athletes have chosen to leave the country over the years. Just last year, Iranian female handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri defected to Spain. In 2020, Kimia Alizadeh, the only woman from Iran to win an Olympic medal, defected as well. And Soheila Farahani, a former Iranian national volleyball player, fled to California seven years ago after her sexuality came under scrutiny. “I felt if I don’t run from the country right now I would be put in jail or executed,” Farahani told TIME.
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