The ‘dangerous game’: How Iran’s protests are spilling out onto the pitch at the World Cup in Qatar

Iranian players and their fans in Qatar face a high-stakes question: Should they express support for protestors back home?

As Iran and the United States prepared to face off on the pitch at the World Cup, the Islamic Republic’s team faced a question usually reserved for soccer fans, not players: Whose side are you on?

By many accounts, the protests have divided certain elements within Iranian society. They are now dividing Iranian soccer fans as well. It’s a classic collision of sports and politics — and it involves a country where politics and protest are reaching a dramatic and potentially dangerous level.

At heart, the question is simple: Is a global stage as powerful as the World Cup an ideal place and platform from which to air political views and grievances, effectively sharing those messages with billions of viewers around the world? Or should politics and political views — however deeply felt — take a back seat at the World Cup or the Olympic Games to keep these occasions and all those viewers focused squarely on the athletes and their sport?

A “precarious situation”

Omid Namazi, the Iranian team’s former assistant coach, addressed the question before the World Cup. Speaking of the Iranian players, he said, “They’ve been put in a very precarious situation.” The regime wants them to keep out of politics; but many of their fans back home “expect these guys who are celebrities and well known to be their voice.”

Before the first match was played, it was clear where some of the Iranian players stood on the matter, and thus also clear that the regime’s concerns had been justified.

As Iran’s national anthem was played ahead of its maiden match against England, the players stood in silence, refusing to sing, in an apparent gesture of support for the protest movement. At minimum, it was an expression of distaste for the Iranian regime.

That distaste was visible around the stadium in Qatar: Among the spectators were Iranian fans who held banners with the slogan, “Woman, Life, Freedom” — a rallying cry for anti-regime protesters at home.

Earlier, the Iranian team captain had expressed his support for the protesters, saying those demanding change in Iran should know that the team was “with them.”

But something happened between that opening match — played last Monday — and their next contest four days later: This time, as the anthem played before their match against Wales, the team sang along. That prompted jeers from some Iranian spectators in Qatar.

Why the change of heart? No explanation was given — and the sing-along seemed far from enthusiastic — but it certainly appeared as if the message had gotten through: Such signs of dissent were unwelcome, and perhaps dangerous. And if the players needed any reminder of the stakes and the pressure to steer clear of controversy, they got one via another news bulletin from Iran.

Politics on the U.S. side as well

While the Iranian players and fans were making their own judgments as to whether to take public stands at the World Cup, the U.S. entered the fray in a different way.

While the U.S. government and many private organizations have voiced support for women’s rights in Iran and the protests more generally, this particular example — the altering of a national emblem — raised eyebrows. They did more than raise eyebrows in Tehran; Iran complained to FIFA, the global soccer federation and organizer of the World Cup, calling for the removal of the U.S. team for disrespecting the Iranian flag.

“Respecting a nation’s flag is an accepted international practice that all other nations must emulate,” Safia Allah Faghanpour, a legal adviser to Iran’s soccer federation, said. “The action conducted in relation to the Iranian flag is unethical and against international law.”

The U.S. federation took down the posts, and FIFA is not expected to take any action. But it was one more off-the-pitch controversy — and one more collision of politics and sports at this year’s World Cup.

Dangerous games

For the Iranian players on the ground, the fallout of this collision will likely reverberate beyond the tournament — particularly if they take any overt stand against the government.

The stories of their fellow Iranian athletes who have stood with the protesters are instructive — and chilling. There was Elnaz Rekabi, the Iranian climber who participated in an international championship in Seoul in October — and did so without covering her head, thus contravening, in the most public of ways, one of the Iranian regime’s theocratic norms. The act made her a star among the protesters in Iran.

A chilling observation — and one that will no doubt be on the minds of the Iranian players in Qatar as they consider what signal to send when they take the field for their next match.

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