Editor’s note: The article was originally published on 21 November. In their opening World Cup game against England in Qatar that day, Iran’s national football team decided not to sing the national anthem in solidarity with anti-regime protesters in Iran. They stood in silence as the anthem played. It is not clear whether the players, or any of their family members, will face consequences for the protest.
By the time the World Cup match between England and Iran kicks off at 13.00 GMT today in Qatar, at least 378 people will have been killed, more than 15,000 will have been arrested and another 21 will be facing the death penalty for participating in Iran’s anti-regime protests over the past ten weeks. Despite Iran’s internet blackout in the country and an obliterated free press, the demonstrations igniting the country – sparked by the murder of a 22-year-old woman in Tehran, Mahsa Amini, by the regime’s “morality police”, after she was detained for improperly wearing a hijab – have captured international attention and prompted fresh sanctions against the regime.
On 20 November, the day before the match, at least one player on the Iranian squad had publicly backed the protesters at home. “They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathise with them regarding the conditions,” Ehsan Hajsafi, the captain of Iran’s football team, told the press. Hajsafi, a 32-year-old from Kashan, currently plays for the AEK Athens FC. “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” he continued. “We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.”
Hajsafi isn’t the first Iranian athlete to publicly rally behind the protesters – many of the young women – while abroad. On 16 October, Elnaz Rekabi, a 33-year-old Iranian climbing champion, competed in the Asian Climbing Championships in Seoul without wearing a headscarf. Yet after photos of her with uncovered hair circulated around the world, Rekabi briefly vanished before a post on her personal Instagram account appeared, claiming that her scarf had fallen off by mistake. She returned to Tehran and is now reportedly under house arrest.
It’s hard to imagine their highly visible acts of solidarity – whether quashed or not – will have an impact on Iran’s regime. Security forces have only escalated the crackdown on demonstrators. Amongst the dead, UNICEF estimates that as many as 50 children have been killed. Some protesters injured by the regime’s security forces have, reportedly, suffered head trauma from baton beatings or been blinded by rubber bullets to the eyes. Iranian dissidents and even journalists living outside the country in the UK have faced security threats for supporting the protests from afar.
As for the thousands of protesters who have been arrested in Iran, their fate is hard to contemplate. Detainees in Iranian prisons have long been subjected to brutal conditions, including solitary confinement, torture, physical beatings, and manipulation. Sham trials abound. And now the regime has introduced death sentences for certain convicted protesters.
This is the backdrop against which the footballers in Doha are playing. The England team will be performing its own form of protest: Gareth Southgate has said that the team will still take the knee – an anti-racism demonstration – before World Cup games. (England captain Harry Kane and others won’t, however, be wearing their One Love rainbow armbands in support of LGBTQ+ rights, which are non-existent in Qatar – and Iran. The plan was abandoned after Fifa threatened players with yellow cards if they wore the bands.)
Taking the knee before a match isn’t a meaningless gesture – in the right setting, it is very potent. But the England team will have the eyes of the world on them as they play a national team from a country that is currently murdering its citizens for protesting for their rights.
The England vs Iran match will last 90 odd minutes; the World Cup will continue for another four weeks. Meanwhile, more and more Iranians across the country have vowed to continue protesting until the regime is gone, or their lives are over – whichever comes first.