Iran arrests soccer player for supporting protests as World Cup team grapples with danger and defiance
A former Iran international soccer player was arrested on Thursday for expressing his solidarity with the protests in Iran, while several members of the current national team also broke their silence to offer support.
Millions of Iranians have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing her headscarf too loosely. The almost unprecedented wave of opposition to the Iranian regime and in support of women’s rights has prompted a swift crackdown by the country’s security forces. The reaction has resulted in the deaths of at least 83 people, activists told Reuters.
The crackdown has also spread to football – Hossein Mahini, a World Cup veteran and longtime defender for Iranian giants Persepolis, has reportedly been arrested for publicly supporting the protests; but also in that, according to players, the current national team lived under strict orders to remain silent.
Most of the two dozen players who were set to represent their nation at the 2022 World Cup in November remained silent last week as they gathered for their final pre-tournament training camp. They played two games when the Iranian Football Federation (IFF), under government pressure, restricted access to the media; and when two spectators who were peacefully demonstrating were thrown out of a game by police; and as cities burned at home.
Sardar Azmoun, a star striker, broke the silence in an Instagram post on Sunday. “If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll be fired from the national team, no problem,” he wrote in Farsi, according to raw translations. “I would sacrifice that for a hair on the head of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want.
The post was deleted shortly thereafter. Later, an apology from Azmoun was released and silence was restored. Several players blacked out their Instagram profile pictures. But some Iranians, including those who risked their lives on the streets, criticized the players for not taking risks and speaking up.
When the players wore black jackets during the national anthem ahead of Tuesday’s game, some Western media interpreted it as a silent show of solidarity with the protesters. But an Iranian activist who runs it @OpenStadium’s Twitter account“It was just her regular jacket,” she told Emox News. She didn’t interpret it as solidarity; The “national team is very much under the observation of the [Iranian security] forces and they won’t explicitly allow them to do that,” she said. None of the players spoke about it.
Iranian players break the silence, support women
However, when the training camp was over, they started talking. “The last few days in the national team camp have been really tough for us,” wrote defender Morteza Pouraliganji.
“Hello, now it’s time to write the things I really wanted to tell you after the camp ended,” Azmoun wrote on Wednesday, alongside a picture of the Iran women’s volleyball team. “My heart really broke for Mahsa Amini,” he wrote in a message expressing his solidarity with Iranian women.
Alireza Jahanbakhsh, another star striker, posted a black square and wrote, in part according to an Instagram translation: “Due to camp conditions and cyberspace avoidance rules, we were not allowed to operate. We are the soldiers of [the Iranian] people and we will always stand by our people. … It’s not asking too much to ask about their most basic human rights. These people should be treated with more dignity and respect.”
Midfielder Saman Ghoddos, who was born in Sweden and now plays in England, wrote in Farsi and English: “As an Iranian who did not grow up in Iran, I am delighted and surprised [sic] by the courage of the women of my country. These kind and brave people deserve the best life. And to have the right to all social services in the modern world. In the times of protest, the police have a responsibility to protect them, especially women and children, and to keep them under their protection. These people have done nothing bad. They just want their human rights, which they want to see. Long live my dear Iran and its amazing people.”
In a separate caption, Ghoddos wrote: “Rest in Peace to all who lost their lives fighting for freedom. #MahsaAmini.”
However, the biggest wave of social media posts came on Friday after it was revealed that Mahini, who played 23 games for the national team from 2011 to 2017, had been arrested for “promotion”.[ing] Disorder and chaos,” according to Iranian state media. His house is also said to have been searched. More than a dozen current internationals pictures posted by Mahini, 36, to her Instagram Stories.
“Now the footballers see what the real situation is [is]’ the OpenStadiums activist, who is protecting her identity to avoid retaliation from Iranian authorities, told Emox News.
However, many of the contributions were measured and left players open to ongoing criticism. Next to a football picture, goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand wrote indistinctly on Wednesday, two weeks after Amini’s death: “The voice of the masses is the voice of God.” One commenter asked him: “Did you wake up from your sleep? How much is the World Cup worth to you? More than the lives of our own people?”
Calls for Iran to be banned from the World Cup
Several players have attempted to portray their efforts as a national team as representing the Iranian people. For many, however, they are inseparable from government.
“The Iranian [soccer federation]led by ex-commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is a key ambassador of the Islamic Republic and acts in accordance with the repressive regime.” OpenStadiums wrote in an open letter on Friday. “We don’t think this team represents us or our values as Iranian citizens any more.”
This letter, addressed to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, called on FIFA to ban Iran from the 2022 World Cup. It cited two FIFA statutes, one of which claims the global governing body of football is “committed to respect for all internationally recognized human rights and endeavors to promote the protection of those rights”.
The other states: “FIFA remains neutral on political and religious matters. Exceptions can be made in relation to matters affected by FIFA’s statutory objectives.”
FIFA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday morning. Iran will open their World Cup campaign against England on November 21 and conclude their Group B game against the United States on November 29.
Danger for Iranian athletes
Mahini’s arrest is not the first time the Iranian regime has punished athletes for defying her. Most notorious was wrestler Navid Afkari, who was sentenced to death and executed in 2020. He had been accused without evidence of killing a security guard during anti-government protests in 2018 and was allegedly tortured into a confession.
The national football team also has a history of activism, although much of it has been suppressed. In 2009, several players wore green armbands during a World Cup qualifier in apparent support of an opposition presidential candidate who was contesting the results of an election. According to reports at the time, they were later “retired” from the national team, but some later returned.
One of them, Ali Karimi, who played for Bayern Munich during his 18-year career, has been a prominent and vocal supporter of the current protests and critic of the regime. State media called for his arrest. His home was confiscated by authorities earlier this week but he is reportedly out of the country and safe.
Ali Daei, the most famous soccer player in Iran’s history, whose international goal record was only recently broken by Cristiano Ronaldo, has been another critic of the government. In an Instagram post earlier this week, he urged his country “rather than repression, violence and imprisonment of the Iranian people to solve their problems.”
On Saturday, according to reportsWhen Daei returned to Iran from Turkey, Iranian security forces confiscated his passport.