While Iran’s football team is about to embark on its World Cup journey in Qatar, the Islamic Republic is worried that the event serves as an opportunity for antigovernment protests.
Since the current wave of demonstrations began in mid-September, following the death in custody of a young woman, more and more athletes have expressed solidarity with the people either in bold public statements or through different forms of disobedience, such as not singing the Islamic Republic’s national anthem during matches.
Iran's water polo team
In less than a month, the pace of the athletes showing support for the protests has accelerated as the Iranian football, beach football, waterpolo, basketball, and sitting volleyball teams refused to sing along with the anthem, which is customary in almost all international competitions. Now with the biggest sporting event on the horizon, the regime is resorting to whatever it can to stifle the voices of dissent.
Authorities have made serious threats against athletes and other celebrities to stop them from public displays of solidarity with protesters but to no avail.
The Iranian sitting volleyball team refused to sing the national anthem.
Threatening to remove players from the national squad, Ahmad Rastineh, the spokesman of the parliament’s cultural committee, said on Sunday that "if a player does not have a proper understanding” of the current affairs, it is not necessary to keep them in the national outfit.
Earlier in the month, the beach football federation of the Islamic Republic threatened the players of the national squad for their acts of solidarity with the antigovernment protests.
The national team players did not cheer or celebrate after winning the cup following their final victory against Brazil and also refused to sing the national anthem of the Islamic Republic at the beginning of their semifinal match against the UAE.
During the final, Iranian striker Saeed Piramoun expressed his solidarity with Iranian protesters by miming the hair cutting gesture after scoring a goal. The gesture has become an international symbol of solidarity with Iranian women and the protest movement with many international athletes and celebrities posting images of themselves re-enacting the move. Islamic Republic officials also issued a threatening message to the United Arab Emirates that hosted the Beach Soccer Intercontinental Cup.
A new trending act of solidarity that is catching on in the past several days, is the reenactment of a photo of one the protesters killed by security forces in the Baluch-majority province of Sistan and Baluchestan.
The iconic photo, which is from an earlier event, shows Khodayar Lojei handcuffed to a post while a glass of water is placed near him but with a distance he cannot reach. Several football and futsal players sat in the same position instead of cheering after scoring a goal while another player put a symbolic glass of water near them.
Also on Sunday, Andrea Stramaccioni, the former Italian coach of the popular football club Esteqlal, said in an Instagram story that he was approached by many Iranian state TV sport programs to appear in their shows as a guest during the World Cup, noting that he rejected the offers because the state broadcaster is suppressing the voice of people.
Addressing the Iranians, he said, “My heart is with you and refusing participation in programs and television you don’t approve of is the least I can do to support your brave movement. Do not lose your hope because the Iranian people we saw deserve a lot more than what they already have.”
During a press conference after the Iranian basketball team’s match with the Chinese squad, several journalists walked out as a show of solidarity with their peers arrested for reporting on Islamic Republic’s deadly violence against protesters.
"Our colleagues have been arrested for some time and are now in prison. We cannot [continue our work] until they are released... We have decided to leave this place. We are not spies or criminals. We are journalists. We are only journalists; sport journalists," said one of the reporters before leaving the room.