One of the most beloved players in Iran’s soccer history had his family home raided by the authorities after speaking out against the government. At least two other well-known players have been arrested and detained for lending support to the protests that have roiled Iran since the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 16.
And six weeks before the World Cup in Qatar, the Iranian national team’s star forward has suggested that he and his teammates are subject to what is in effect a gag order, warned that even commenting on the protests might cost them their places on the team. Unable to speak publicly, Iran’s players prepared for their final tuneup game this week in Austria with what amounted to a silent protest instead, covering their jerseys in black jackets during the national anthem.
Now, a group that has long campaigned for women and girls to be allowed into stadiums to watch soccer in Iran has urged the game’s global governing body, FIFA, to intervene. In a letter to the soccer body’s president on Thursday, the group called on FIFA to throw Iran’s team out of the World Cup for a “blatant violation” of soccer’s rules on governmental interference.
“The Iranian Football Association is an important ambassador of the Islamic Republic and is acting in line with the repressive regime,” the activist group, Open Stadiums, wrote in a letter to FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino. “It comes as no surprise, then, that they have prohibited footballers from showing any solidarity with the Iranian citizens’ call for freedom and the victims of the same authorities’ brutal crackdown.
The letter asked FIFA “to immediately expel Iran from the World Cup 2022 in Qatar.”
FIFA declined to comment on the letter on Thursday.
The request to eject Iran was made more in hope than expectation: FIFA is unlikely to eject the team from a tournament for which it has qualified, especially so close to the competition, nor has it shown any effort to pressure Iran with anything more than public statements. A majority of Iranian fans also would oppose to a World Cup ban; many of them revere the national team, which is known as Team Melli, and see it as a representative of the people rather than the government.
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But soccer’s leadership could face considerable pressure from the impact of the protests sweeping Iran after the death of Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the country’s morality police; any effort by the government to silence the national team’s players; and repercussions against current and former players who have publicly supported the protests.
Infantino visited Tehran in 2018 to watch the final of the Asian Champions League, a game for which a small group of women was permitted to enter the city’s Azadi Stadium. In the months that followed, he claimed that FIFA had made “repeated calls” to the Iranian authorities to “address the unacceptable situation” of women not being permitted to enter stadiums.
“Our position is firm and clear,” Infantino said in 2019, after a fan set herself on fire outside a courthouse where she faced being jailed for having attended a game. “Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran.” He restated that position as recently as last year, when he praised the work of the president of Iran’s federation after a meeting in Doha.
Open Stadiums on Thursday said it had concluded that “these were all empty words and promises.” In March, for example, women holding tickets to a match in the northeastern city of Mashhad were denied entry when they tried to enter the stadium. Some were attacked with pepper spray by security officers.
“Nothing has changed,” the group wrote to Infantino. “Iranian women remain locked out of our beautiful game, and we are systematically repressed when we try to enter stadiums.” The group accused Infantino and FIFA of allowing a “gross human rights violation” to happen with its “protection and approval.”
Several of the country’s most famous players, including Ali Daei — for years the leading scorer in international soccer history — have criticized the government both for Amini’s death and the subsequent repression of protests. “Solve the problems of the Iranian people rather than using repression, violence and arrests,” Daei wrote on Instagram.
One of the most prominent soccer voices to speak out has been Ali Karimi, once of Bayern Munich and arguably the most successful Iranian player of all time. Karimi, now 43, has for days used his social media feeds — including his Instagram account, which has almost 13 million followers — to criticize the government; to share footage of the protests and the violent response of the police; and even to advise his followers on how to circumvent blocks on Iranian internet access.
Government officials and their allies have called for Karimi to be arrested, and it has been reported that state television is under instructions not to mention either him or his former teammate, Daei, by name.
On Monday night, Karimi’s house in the Tehran suburb of Lavasan was seized by the authorities, with a large concrete block placed at its entrance. Other properties were also reported to have been “sealed.” In response, more than a million Iranians added their names to a petition circulating on social media that said, “I stand with Ali Karimi.”
Karimi, now believed to be in the United Arab Emirates, responded on Instagram that “a house without soil is worthless.”
His successors on the national team say they have not been able to be quite so outspoken. Sardar Azmoun, a striker with the German side Bayer Leverkusen, suggested in an Instagram post that “national team rules” prevented players from expressing their views on the protest before insisting that he would willingly “sacrifice” his place at the World Cup for “one hair on the heads of Iranian women.”
A number of other players posted similar messages. A few hours later, they had all been deleted. Some players “blacked out” their social media accounts, while Azmoun — known as the Iranian Messi and widely considered his country’s best player — removed all imagery from his Instagram feed for several days. When images reappeared on Wednesday, the account featured a carefully worded message of support for Iran’s women.
The unease within the national team — which has spent the past two weeks in Austria on a pre-World Cup training camp — became clear before a game with Senegal on Tuesday. At the request of the Iranian authorities, no fans had been allowed to access the stadium, though a group of protesters had gathered outside. As the Iranian anthem played, and the protesters shouts carried through the air, the players remained impassive, the flag on their jerseys hidden beneath thick black coats.
The country’s authorities have insisted that they will “take action against the celebrities who fan the flames of the riots,” the INSA news agency reported, attributing the comments to Tehran’s provincial governor, Mohsen Mansouri.
On Thursday, they followed through on the threat. State news agencies confirmed that Hossein Mahini, a defender who had been part of Iran’s squad at the 2014 World Cup and had most recently been playing for Saipa, a second-division team in Tehran, had been arrested for “supporting and encouraging riots on his social media pages.”
About 24 hours later, Azmoun was back on Instagram. In a new post that was both a subtle challenge to the national team’s gag order and a signal of his solidarity, he posted an image of Mahini underneath a large blue heart.