In fact, the country is currently in the middle of a series of protests and general civil unrest. It all started on September 16 this year after a 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the Guidance Patrol (a religious police force tasked with ensuring that no one in Iran, especially women, breaks their extremely strict dress code) died in a hospital in Tehran. Amini was arrested for wearing what the Guidance Patrol deemed an “inappropriate” hijab.
According to some eyewitness accounts, Amini was beaten by agents of the Guidance Patrol. This has subsequently been refuted by the Iranian authorities.
The protests spread from Amini’s hometown in Saqqez to other cities in Kurdistan. According to a CNN report, a Norway-based human rights organization has stated that 378 protesters have already been killed. Another 14,000, according to the report citing a UN official, have been arrested across the country.
This is what courage looks likeThe Iranian football team refuses to sing the national anthem on the biggest stage in… https://t.co/GL5pSQz7mV
— Stefan Simanowitz (@StefSimanowitz) 1669040595000
According to many, these protests are hugely significant.
These have all been acts of defiance. And on Monday we witnessed another example of that – albeit in an extremely ‘silent’ way – Iranian footballers choosing to remain silent as their national anthem was played in front of their FIFA world cup opener against England.
England won the match on the field, but the Iranians won hearts around the world for their defiance in support of the protests at home. It was a brave thing to do, very brave indeed.
The Iran Captain, Ehasan Hajsafihad told the media at a pre-match press conference a day before their game against England – “I want to say – condolences to all the grieving families in Iran… We want them to know that we are with them and by their side and their share pain.”
Those are some very brave words when you consider how brutally the protests in Iran are being handled by the state apparatus.
It is also very interesting that the Iranians stand up for what they believe in, in a country that also has very strict rules and regulations – Qatar. So much so that a number of international team captains were stopped, almost at the last minute, from wearing the ‘OneLove’ armbands. At least 7 captains planned to wear these bands to show their solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
However, homosexuality is against the law in Qatar. Both men and women may face strict sanctions under the 2004 Penal Code, which criminalizes sexual activity of any kind. These can in fact imprison a person for up to 7 years.
Iranian World Cup captain: “In the name of God, creator of rainbows… I want to offer my condolences to all grieving f… https://t.co/seIa51fjjb
— Caroline Darya Framke (@carolineframeke) 1668995738000
It comes as no surprise, then, that FIFA suddenly issued a dictation that any player wearing the OneLove armbands will receive a yellow card. Twice yellow means immediately red. But was that a threat big enough to push back some of world football’s biggest superstars? The captains of teams such as England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, as well as their individual football associations, thought so.
“You don’t want the captain to start the game with a yellow card. That’s why we as a UEFA working group… and as a team had to decide with a heavy heart to abandon our plan” – That’s what the Royal Dutch Football Association, the KNVB, a statement said. Apparently, the Dutch got to hear that skipper a few hours before the kick-off of their tournament opener vs Senegal Virgil Van Dyke would receive a yellow card if he walked onto the field with the OneLove bracelet.
Couldn’t they have taken on FIFA here? After all, it’s something they believe in, right?
When Europe’s 7 major football powers chose to play the ball and follow the official line, the Iranian footballers refused to change their plans for a silent protest.
Another last-minute turnaround that enraged fans was the sudden ban on the sale of beer (all available alcohol) in the stadiums. Alcohol is now only available in certain fan parks and the hospitality suites (business boxes, etc.) of the 8 locations. Drinking in public areas is strictly prohibited in Qatar. However, they chose to enforce this ban right before the tournament started and most of the fans had already arrived. And FIFA agreed, despite the possibility of having to answer some rather awkward questions from one of their main sponsors – Budweiser – who has been one of the official sponsors of the World Cup since the 1986 edition in Mexico. According to some reports, the deal with Budweiser, which has exclusive rights to sell alcohol during the tournament, is worth $75 million.
Iranian players line up ahead of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 match against England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
And let’s not forget the fans, who have suddenly been told that there will be no beer available. Around the world, in most countries, the sale of beer is allowed in the stadiums for most sports. This together with the fact that the fans in the stadiums are not allowed to wear clothing that falls under the category ‘revealing’.
Interestingly, during Brazil’s 2014 edition, FIFA had the hosts change the beer rules in the stadiums. In 2003, Brazil banned the sale of beer in their football stadiums to combat hooliganism in the stands. Ahead of the 2014 World Cup, FIFA told Brazil to lift that ban because beer sales are an intrinsic facet of World Cup traditions. They were told it is non-negotiable. Then the Brazilian Congress was forced to sign a new law that ended an 11-year ban. And beer flowed in Brazilian stadiums.
In Qatar, however, FIFA has gone the other way: bowing to the demands of the host country. What happened to old traditions here?
In the midst of all this, the Iranians stood their ground – they stood up for what they believed in and weren’t afraid to show it. There was no FIFA dictate against singing their national anthem, but they know what’s going on at home – and that’s, let’s face it, very, very scary. And yet they decided to stick to their beliefs, unafraid of possible sanctions against them – now or when they go back home.
They’ve done what some of Europe’s and FIFA’s biggest superstars couldn’t or chose not to do: stand up for what they believe in.