Before even a ball was kicked into Iran’s World Cup in the opener against England on Monday, the Iranian players made a strong statement.
In what seemed like a show of solidarity with them protest at home, the players stood still as the Iranian national anthem was played around the Khalifa International Stadium before kick-off on Monday. The game ended in a 6-2 victory for England.
Protests, chaos and violence have erupted Iran in recent months and posed a threat to the country’s regime, which has been in power for more than 40 years.
The protests, described by experts as the most significant since the establishment of clerical rule after the 1979 Iranian revolution, were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by Iran’s morality police, allegedly for not following the country’s conservative dress code. Iranian security forces have unleashed a violent response.
Before the tournament started, Iranian manager Carlos Queiroz said players are allowed to protest while competing in Qatar.
Monday’s quiet show of respect was met with a loud backlash from Iran’s fans, many of whom cheered throughout. It is unclear whether it was in support of the players.
Queiroz was reluctant to talk about off-field issues at his post-match press conference following England’s dominant 6–2 win.
In what appeared to be a show of solidarity with those protesting at home, the players fell silent as the Iranian national anthem was played around the Khalifa International Stadium before kick-off on Monday.
Queiroz sounded frustrated when asked about a non-football issue and did not speak directly about the national anthem protest.
“That [fans] that came to disturb the team with issues that are not just about football, they are not welcome,” Queiroz said, trying to shield his players from criticism.
“It’s not the [the players’] wrong that the World Cup is taking place at this time.
“Let the kids play the game, they want to represent the country, represent the people like any other national team.
“It is not right to come to this World Cup and ask them to do things that are not their responsibility,” Queiroz added.
“At the right times, we will express our feelings and our opinions.”
On the pitch, Iran couldn’t match England’s quality as goals from Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling had England out of sight by the end of the first half.
The impressive Saka added his second in the second half, with further goals from Marcus Rashford and Jack Grelish completing the rout.
Iran gave its fans something to cheer for after Mehdi Taremi scored a well-taken goal to make it 4-1 and added a penalty at the end of stoppage time, but for many Iranian fans the result would not have been the best important event of the day.
It speaks to the precarious nature of the political situation in Iran that many fans felt the need to hide their identities as they walked to the stadium for this Group B match.
Three Iranians spoke to CNN wearing hats, masks and sunglasses, none of whom felt comfortable giving their names for fear of repercussions in Iran.
One of them had giant scissors, symbolizing the act of defiance that has spread in Iran of women cutting their hair. They feared rumors, they said, that Iranian authorities had sent security to Qatar to keep tabs on fans, but said their own safety mattered less than the plight of their family and friends back home.
“We know players are under tremendous pressure, yet the Iranian people expect them to do something,” one fan told CNN.
In the wake of Iran’s protests and human rights abuses, several groups inside and outside the country had called on FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, to ban the country from participating in the World Cup.
In October, a group of prominent Iranian athletes lobbied FIFA through a law firm to urge the governing body to suspend and ban the Iran Football Federation (FFIRI) from participating in the World Cup.
The Football Association of Ukraine also called on FIFA to “consider excluding the Iranian national team”, citing the “systematic human rights violations” there and “Iran’s possible involvement in Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine”.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended Iran’s participation in the World Cup in his pre-tournament press conference, saying the match against England will consist of “two football teams” competing in matches rather than “two regimes” or “two ideologies”.
England also had to make a decision before the opening game. The Football Association and captain Harry Kane had said they had a “One Love” bracelet to promote inclusion and combat discrimination.
However, just hours before kick-off, England joined several other countries in overturning its decision over the danger of receiving yellow cards for wearing the armband.
The organizers had hoped that after the start of the tournament, attention would shift from off-field problems to on-field action. But, just two days into the tournament, football has yet to take center stage.