Standing in a row, arms folded over each other’s shoulders, the players of from iran The World Cup soccer team was left stone-faced Monday as their country’s national anthem was played ahead of their World Cup opener: their refusal to sing an “unprecedented” show of defiance amid protests anti-government groups shake the country.
In an era where protests by athletes are becoming more common, it’s also an act that observers worry could have serious repercussions. — and has some calls for international efforts to protect them.
Among the Canadians who had tuned in on Monday morning to watch the broadcast of the England game from Qatar’s Khalifa International Stadium was Ali Dizboni, associate professor of political science at the Royal Military College in Kingston: “Not a single one was singing it, so it seems that it was coordinated between the players.
“It is the stage of the competition when the players show their respect for their nationality,” he said. “It’s just basic stuff, but they didn’t do it, and it’s a very, very bad message for the government.”
The silent protest on the sport’s biggest stage, by a team accused by some fans of siding with the regime, was one of the most prominent displays of solidarity with the uprisings sparked by the death in September of a 22-year-old woman. . Mahsa Amini, who slipped into a coma and later died while in police custody after being arrested for allegedly wearing her hijab incorrectly.
His death ignited existing concerns about an oppressive Shia Muslim theocracy and a recessionary economy, and the resulting protests, which involved women cutting their hair and burning hijabs, were violently suppressed. Several hundred people have been killed by government forces in the past two months, nonprofit groups say, in what has become one of the biggest eruptions of riots since the 1979 revolution.
Athletes have increasingly sought to use their time in the spotlight to stand up for their convictions: National Football League player Colin Kaepernick took a knee while listening to his national anthem in protest of racial brutality, and even in the past few days, several European nations had planned to wear professional clothing. -LGBTQ bracelets, in opposition to Qatar’s human rights record.
Kaepernick arguably lost his career and the bracelet plan was quashed by FIFA’s threat to hand out yellow cards, but some worry Iranian players, as citizens of a more violent state, risk paying a price. very high for his dissent.
Other athletes have spoken out before, with serious repercussions.
last month sport climber Elnaz Rekabi she showed up to compete in South Korea without a hijab, even though the garment is mandatory for women within the country and represents the nation elsewhere.
According to press reports, her friends had not been able to contact her for a period of time after the competition, and when she returned to Iran, she apologized, saying that the head covering had accidentally fallen off.
However the BBC quoted a source who said that the apology was forced and that the authorities threatened to take away her family’s assets and that she remains under house arrest.
More sinister, in an earlier wave of protests in 2018, fighter Navid Afkari was sentenced to death. (Officially, the sentence was for the murder of a security guard during a demonstration, an act that friends and family maintain he did not commit.)
Despite calls from around the world to stop the execution, the BBC quoted state media as saying that he was ultimately hanged. His brothers are still in jail.
“The reality is that it is a brutal regime that takes no prisoners. If you’re against this, we’ve seen what they’ve been doing in recent years,” said Rob Koehler, CEO of Global Athlete, an international organization that works to give athletes a stronger voice in sport who was among those who they advocated for Afkari.
While many of the Iranian athletes live and play around the world, Koehler said that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be free of repercussions, as there have been cases where Iran has attacked people in the United States, for example: “I think that everything is fine”. on the table, in terms of what could potentially happen to these athletes.”
He argues that powerful organizations like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee should protect athletes by publicly committing to ban any country where athletes are punished for their activism.
Dizboni, who is also a researcher at Queen’s University, doubts the government will go so far as to use violence against the team, but that there are still political and financial levers they can pull.
Maybe players aren’t financially compensated for playing, maybe there are political threats, maybe they just don’t play as much as others who didn’t speak up, he says.
But there is no doubt that officials will be angry: the protests are a very public rebuke of a regime clinging to power in the face of one of the most significant uprisings since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, as well as mounting condemnation from the international community. . Last week, Canada announced additional penalties in response to what were described as “serious and systematic human rights violations” in the country.
Dizboni points out that Iran’s state television is broadcast late, so images that go against government policy, such as immodestly dressed women, may be removed; The anthem protest was reportedly not shown in the country at all.
But Iran is a country of veteran sports fans, and he says viewers would not have been lost to see the English team’s anthem and then a mysterious omission from their own team.
Politics was already present on the field, he adds, arguing that a player like sardar azmoun Known in some circles as Iran’s answer to legendary Argentine striker Lionel Messi, he largely stayed on to warm up the bench after speaking publicly in support of the protests.
But as popular as soccer is in Iran, the team’s presence in the competition has become controversial in recent weeks, with a group of Iranian sports personalities calling on FIFA to ban the country from participating in the competition. completely.
In the days leading up to the departure for Qatar, the team met with the country’s president and took a photo that upset many fans.
Former captain of the Iranian national team Ali Daei (once the all-time top international goalscorer) declined an invitation from FIFA and the Qatar Football Federation to attend the competition, out of “sympathy with the families of the victims who recently lost their loved ones.”
Photos of Iranian fans in Qatar show many holding a flag dating from the former Kingdom of Iran, emblazoned with the words “Women, Life and Freedom.”
The day before the England match, captain Ehsan Hajsafi, 23, appeared to express his support for the protesters. “First of all, I would like to express my condolences to all the bereaved families in Iran. They should know that we stand with them and stand in solidarity with them,” he said, speaking in Persian.
Most of the players have continued their silence after losing to England 6-2. Later on Monday came an unexpected spectacle of apparent support Ali Bahaadori Jahromi, spokesman for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Along with a photo of an Iranian goalkeeper, injured during the game, lying face down on the pitch, he wrote in Persian: “We love the Iran national team, in any situation.”
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