Iranian media blames protests for humiliating World Cup loss

Doha, Qatar –

Iran was reeling on Tuesday from the humiliation of starting the World Cup with a comprehensive 6-2 defeat against England in a match overshadowed by protests on and off the pitch.

Hardline Iranian media sought to blame the defeat on the unrest that has gripped the Islamic Republic since the death on September 16 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police. Iranian newspapers resorted to the familiar tactic of accusing foreign enemies, including the United States, Britain and Israel, of provoking protests to mislead the national team.

“Iran – 2; England, Israel, Saudi Arabia and traitors – 6,” read the headline of the hardline Kayhan daily. The newspaper, whose editor-in-chief is appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran’s defeat came after “weeks of unprecedented and unfair psychological warfare against the team… by traitors domestic and foreign”. He added that a “political stream of the media” has tried to “damage the spirit of the Iran team by attacking it.”

Iran fans in the stands chanted Amini’s name Monday, carried signs and wore T-shirts with protest slogans and booed him during the national anthem. Many fans appeared conflicted over whether to support their national team in the context of the violent crackdown on protests by security forces. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests broke out, according to watchdog Human Rights Activists in Iran. As the game was taking place on Monday, Iranian security forces fired heavy fire at protesters in a Kurdish town in the west of the country.

Another hardline daily, Vatanemrooz, reported that protesters in Iran celebrated their country’s humiliating defeat in the streets, cheered in cafes when England scored goals and honked their car horns joyfully after the game. Images from central Tehran posted online show motorbike drivers honking their horns and yelling “Six!” in reference to England’s six goals against Iran. Authorities closed a cafe in the northeastern city of Mashhad for announcing that it would support England.

“None of the players were ready in spirit,” Iran’s pro-reform Shargh daily wrote.

The nationwide protest movement first focused on Iran’s state-mandated hijab, or headscarf, for women, but soon morphed into calls for the downfall of Iran’s ruling Shiite clerics. In the course of the demonstrations, filmmakers, actors, sports stars and other celebrities have spoken out publicly against the government.

Iran’s national team has come under enormous pressure from protesters to show their support in the run-up to the world soccer championship. The players faced a barrage of public criticism last week after meeting President Ebrahim Raisi at a farewell ceremony, where they remained silent on the issue of the protests. Some players were photographed bowing respectfully to Raisi.

“So you went to the president, that was the best opportunity to ask him not to kill children and adolescents, at least!” prominent Iranian actor Parviz Parastouei wrote on Instagram.

Before the kick-off against England, the Iranian players did not sing their anthem, remaining silent in an apparent act of solidarity. During the match they did not celebrate the team’s two goals.

Players risk strong backlash for making even the smallest gestures of protest. The state news agency IRNA has tried to promote the team as a symbol of patriotism and national unification amid the turmoil, describing the players as “soldiers fighting to lift up their country.”

Some former soccer stars who have championed the protest movement have been arrested or charged in absentia. Moslem Moein, the head of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Cyberspace Organization, called out four of the loudest retired players, who reportedly declined invitations to attend the World Cup as government guests.

“England forwards didn’t score the goals,” he wrote, adding that Iran’s defeat was the work of former players who protested off the pitch.

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