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Changing their tune

Iran’s soccer team buckles under backlash over national anthem at World Cup

Iran's players line up for the national anthem ahead of the World Cup match against Wales on Nov. 25. Associated Press/Photo by Pavel Golovkin

Changing their tune

Compared to the Iranian men’s national soccer team, Colin Kaepernick had it easy.

Like the controversial former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Iran’s World Cup team staged a protest as the national anthem played before a game. Kaepernick knelt in protest of oppression and violence against African Americans, causing a nationwide controversy and incurring the wrath of former President Donald Trump, who called for his firing.

The Iranian soccer players experienced backlash from high-level government officials for their protest. Iran’s government reportedly threatened the players and their families with imprisonment and torture if the players demonstrated against the government prior to kickoff.

Ultimately, the team known in soccer circles as the Lions of Persia changed their tune.

Back in mid-September, a 22-year-old Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the Islamic country’s morality police. Amini’s alleged crime: Wearing her hijab—an Islamic women’s head covering—too loosely in public, leaving some of her hair visible to men outside of her family in violation of Islamic law. Iran’s morality police took her to a detention center in Tehran, the country’s capital city, for lessons in modesty. According to Amini’s family, Amini died of blows to her head and body; Iranian authorities’ official line is that Amini died of a heart attack.

Amini’s death was a watershed moment in Iran, igniting a wave of protests against the brutal oppression of women.

Demonstrations occurred in the streets of Iran daily for the 10 weeks leading up to Iran’s World Cup match against Team USA on Nov. 29 and are still ongoing. As of the day of the match, Iranian security forces had reportedly killed more than 400 protesters while attempting to maintain order.

On top of that, the Iranian government has taken four members of the national soccer team—Veria Ghafouri, Hossein Mahini, Parviz Broumand, and Hamidreza Ali Asgari—into custody on charges of participating in or supporting the protests, according to the news outlet VOA Persian.

This brings us to the World Cup in Qatar: At the globe’s premier international soccer tournament, teams customarily sing their countries’ national anthems before their matches. In a show of solidarity with women’s rights demonstrators back home, Iran’s players remained silent as their country’s anthem played before their Nov. 21 opening match against England.

Before Iran’s second match against Wales on Nov. 25, The Lions of Persia sang their anthem—albeit half-heartedly, and may have only lip-synced, VOA Persian reported—before beating the Welsh squad 2-0.

Between the win over Wales—in which Iran bounced back from a 6-2 loss to England—and the loss to the United States, Iran’s government reportedly threatened the country’s soccer players and their families. Most Iranian players sang the national anthem before facing the United States, though some remained stoic, according to MSN.com.

The Iranian government’s threats did not stop team captain Ahsan Hajsafi from expressing support for the protesters after the match, though.

U.S. Soccer, the federation that operates the U.S. men’s and women’s national teams, also attempted to show solidarity with Iranian protesters and support the cause of Iranian women’s rights. A day before the United States defeated Iran, U.S. Soccer officials posted on social media pictures of Iran’s green, white, and red flag minus the religious symbol of the Islamic Republic that rests in the flag’s white center. Considering the move a slap in the face, Iranian state media called on FIFA to kick the United States out of the tournament.

To Iran’s detriment, FIFA did not do so: Christian Pulisic scored the lone goal of the match in the 38th minute, and the United States’ defense limited Iran to just four shots—none on goal—as the Americans advanced to the World Cup’s knockout round for the first time since 2010.

Team USA will face the Netherlands—World Cup runner-up in 2010 and third-place team in 2014—in an elimination match on Saturday.

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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