The presence of Iran’s national football team in Qatar’s World Cup has sparked controversy as the country is convulsed with antigovernment protests and many people expect athletes to support the uprising.
The Iranian squad – nicknamed Team Melli – met with President Ebrahim Raisi hours before departing for Doha, irking many Iranians who did not expect the players to be so blithe about the current uprising across the country. They have been heavily criticized on Twitter since the meeting.
During the nationwide protests on Tuesday, people also set fire to a government banner of the national team.
During the past few days, Iranian legendary striker Ali Daei and outspoken star Ali Karimi, who has been charged in absentia for supporting the protests, said they rejected invitations by Qatar to watch the World Cup matches.
Declining the invitation, Ali Karimi told President Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in a letter released on Tuesday that “As you know, the people of Iran are currently going through a very difficult time. The international media largely ignores our struggles. Right now, there are more important issues for me than Football and I want to be with my people and be their voice.”
During a press conference earlier on Tuesday, national team coach Carlos Queiroz claimed the players are free to join in the protests while they are playing at the World Cup in Qatar but must do so within the rules of the tournament.
“You express yourself in football according to those principles and values. Everybody has the right to express themselves,” he said.
Addressing a reporter who asked about the current situation in Iran, Queiroz said, “You guys are used to kneeling in the games and some people agree, some people don't agree with that, and in Iran it's exactly the same, but it is out of question to think that the Iran national team is suffering any sort of issues like that, the players only have one thing in mind, which is to fight for that dream to be in the second round.” The Iranian national team has failed in its five previous World Cup appearances to reach the second round.
Queiroz was asked whether he was proud to coach a country that repressed women. In a terse retort, the coach asked the reporter how much he would pay him to answer the question, before adding the reporter should think about the issue of immigration in the UK first.
The Iranian government is extremely worried about protests by fans or even players during the games and wants to make sure people will not see any manifestations on satellite TV. The state broadcaster can always cut away during live matches.
It is most probably for this reason that the Qatari government has denied accreditation to Iran International’s journalists from traveling there to cover the World Cup.
Although FIFA has issued ID cards for our correspondents, the Qatari interior ministry denied accreditation.
Last month, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi expressed concern over possible problems that may happen during the FIFA World Cup, tacitly referring to people chanting slogans against the Islamic Republic during matches or players making statements about the situations in Iran. Earlier in November, he tasked the Foreign Ministry to contact Qatari officials regarding the issue to find ways “to predict and prevent possible problems."
Team Melli players covered up their national team badge when they played two warm-up internationals in September, which was interpreted as a sign of support for the protests, but other national teams and athletes have been more vocal and direct in their support for the protests.
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.