IRANIAN players who bravely refused to sing their national anthem could face punishment, prison or even the death penalty when they return home.
The Iranian XI stood tall but silent as the anthem played and boos rained down from their own fans ahead of their clash with England at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.
Iranian fans in the Qatari stadium were moved to tears by the incredible gesture as massive protests continue to sweep the Islamic Republic.
And it came after many fans back home accused the squad of siding with a violent state crackdown ahead of the World Cup.
But the Iranian team’s gesture could land them in an awful lot of trouble back home should the regime decide to make an example of them.
Political dissent is a crime in Iran – and is one of the offences subject to capital punishment, with 21 protesters already facing execution after sham trials since the start of the uprising in September.
Iranian officials had already been discussing cracking down on perceived disrespect to their national anthem and flag ahead of the World Cup.
And the national team’s defiance on such an international scale will spark fury amongst the regime – and could spark retribution.
Massoud Setayeshi, spokesman for the Iran’s Judiciary, said just days ago that punishments could be meted out for those who reject the anthem.
Iranian courts have been taking a brutal line on people linked to the protests, with more than 15,000 people arrested and hundreds killed by the security forces.
And just last month, teenager Asra Panahi was beaten to death after she reportedly refused to sing a pro-government anthem.
State news agencies also reported just ten days ago an Iranian cleric during prayers called on athletes who disrespect the anthem to face punishment.
Iran’s current president is Ebrahim Raisi – who is known as “The Butcher” for his role in the massacre of thousands of protesters in 1988.
However, Iran has shown restraint in recent months – opting not punish climber Elnaz Rekabi who competed without the nation’s mandatory hijab.
And the Iranian men’s water polo team – who also refused to sing the anthem – have also so-far gone unpunished.
Protests demanding the fall of the ruling regime have gripped Iran since the death two months ago of young woman Mahsa Amini.
She was arrested and allegedly beaten to death for flouting the strict Islamic dress code.
Dozens of Iranian public figures, athletes and artists have displayed solidarity with the protesters.
But there was anger as the national team remained in a state of silence.
The players however turned this silence into a gesture ahead of their game with England as they refused to sing the national anthem.
Iranian state television did not show the players lined up for the anthem before the match got underway just across the Gulf.
The Iranian squad could not avoid being overshadowed by the anti-government unrest that has rattled the regime.
Ahead of the match, no Iranian player had voiced support for the demonstrations by compatriots from all walks of life.
It is one of the most sustained challenges to the cleric elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“All of us are sad because our people are being killed in Iran but all of us are proud of our team because they did not sing the national anthem – because it’s not our national (anthem), it’s only for the regime,” said one Iranian fan.
In the past, the Iranian team was a source of fired up national pride.
Now, with mass protests, many would prefer it withdrew from the World Cup.
Before travelling to Doha the team met with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral while the street unrest raged on, drawing an outcry on social media.
“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not play,” said Iran fan Elmira, 24.
“It is not Iran’s team, it is the Islamic Republic’s team.”
“They could refuse to take part in the World Cup or even refuse to play if they were forced to go, to show that they are part of the nation, to show solidarity with mothers in Iran whose children were killed by the regime (during protests).”
The activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors.
Some 54 members of the security forces had also been killed, HRANA said, with at least 17,251 people arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of any wider death count.
“I know it is their job to play football but with all those children killed in Iran, they should have stood in solidarity with the people,” said Iran fan Setareh, 17.
“Especially when the England team is going to kneel (in solidarity), how can the national team show no solidarity?”
Some Iranian fans who went to Qatar for the World Cup made no secret of their solidarity with the unrest.
They carried banners that read “Women, Life, Freedom” in support of the protests.
“Freedom for Iran. Stop killing children in the streets!” shouted one Iranian woman.
Another Iranian woman with the colours of an Iranian flag painted on her face said Iran is a football-crazed nation.
“But this year,” she said, “everything is different, all we care about is this revolution and for people to get their freedom back, and not be scared to just walk on the street, do and dress as they want, and say what they want.”
In the capital Tehran, some banners of the national team have been burned by angry protesters.
Pictures of children killed in the protests were widely shared by Iranians on Twitter, with messages such as: “They loved football too, but they were killed by the Islamic Republic.”
“Those children took risks for their country and were killed by the regime. The national team should take risks and show solidarity with the nation,” said Iran fan Hamidreza, 19.
Pejman Zarji, a 38-year-old sports coach who was in Qatar for the World Cup, said the Iranian team belonged to the people not the government.
He said: “There is always – no matter what – a part that’s about politics.
“There’s something really important to understand (now) – ‘Team Melli’ is what we call the Iran team, it’s the team of the people before being the team of the government.
Sara Masoudi, 32, another Iranian fan in Qatar who works for a media management company, played down the protests at home.
They were “very small” but the media made them out to be large, she told Reuters.
“I don’t see a lot of fans here who are supporters of the protests. Social media is giving a wrong picture of reality.”
The Sun Online also spoke to an Iranian football legend who vowed he would be supporting England against Iran.
Source » thesun