In fact, the country is currently in the midst of a series of protests and general civil unrest. It all started on September 16 of this year after a 22-year-old woman mahsa amini, who was arrested by the Orientation Patrol (a religious police force tasked with ensuring that no one in Iran, especially women, breaks its extremely strict dress codes) died in a Tehran hospital. Amini was arrested for wearing what the Orientation Patrol deemed an ‘inappropriate’ hijab.
According to some eyewitness reports, Amini was beaten by Orientation Patrol officers. This has later been refuted by the Iranian authorities.
The protests spread from Amini’s hometown of Saqqez to other cities in Kurdistan. According to a CNN report, a Norway-based human rights group has stated that as many as 378 protesters have already been killed. Another 14,000, according to the report citing a UN official, have been detained across the country.
This is what courage looks like The 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 enormously significant.
These have all been acts of defiance. And on Monday we witnessed another example of that, albeit in an extremely ‘quiet’ way: Iranian footballers chose to remain silent as their national anthem played ahead of their FIFA World Cup first game against England.
England won the match on the pitch, but the Iranians won the hearts of the world with their act of defiance in support of the protests at home. It was a brave thing to do, a very brave thing indeed.
Iran’s captain Ehasan Hajsafihe had told the media at a pre-match press conference a day before their match against England: “I want to say: condolences to all the bereaved families in Iran… We want them to know that we are with them and by their side.” and share their pain.
Those are some very brave words when you consider how brutally the state machine is handling the protests in Iran.
It is also very interesting that Iranians stand up for what they believe in a country that also has very strict rules and regulations: Qatar. So much so that several international team captains have been prevented, practically at the last minute, from wearing the ‘OneLove’ armbands. At least 7 captains planned to use these bands to show solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.
However, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar. Both men and women can face strict measures under the 2004 penal code that criminalizes any type of same-sex activity. In fact, these can land a person in jail for up to 7 years.
Iran World Cup captain: “In the name of God, creator of rainbows… I want to offer my condolences to all the mourners f… https://t.co/seIa51fjjb
— Caroline Darya Framke (@carolineframke) 1668995738000
So it’s no surprise that FIFA suddenly issued a dictate that any player wearing the OneLove armbands will receive a yellow card. Two yellows would mean a straight red. But was that a big enough threat to push back some of the biggest superstars in world soccer? The captains of teams like England, Wales, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark, as well as their respective football federations, believed so.
“You don’t want the captain to start the game with a yellow card. So, with a heavy heart, as a UEFA working group… and as a team, we had to decide to abandon our plan.” Royal Dutch Football Association, the KNVBhe said in a statement. The Dutch were apparently told, just hours before the start of their tournament opener against Senegal, that the skipper Virgil van Dyke he would be shown a yellow card if he entered the pitch wearing the OneLove armband.
Couldn’t they have taken on FIFA on this? After all, it’s something they believe in, right?
While Europe’s top 7 soccer powers chose to follow the official line, Iranian footballers refused to change their plans for a silent protest.
Another last-minute U-turn that angered fans was the sudden ban on the sale of beer (all alcohol available) inside stadiums. Alcohol is now only available in certain fan parks and the hospitality suites (corporate boxes, etc.) of the 8 venues. 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 went along with it, despite the prospect of having to face some rather awkward questions from one of its main sponsors, Budweiser, which has been an official sponsor of the World Cup since the 1986 edition in Mexico. According to some reports, the deal with Budweiser, which has the exclusive rights to sell alcohol at the tournament, is worth 75 million euros.
Iran’s players line up before the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup match against England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
And then let’s not forget the fans, who have suddenly been told there will be no beer available. Around the world, in most countries, for most sports, the sale of beer is allowed in stadiums. This coupled with the fact that fans in stadiums are not allowed to wear any type of clothing that falls into the ‘revealing’ category.
Interestingly, in the 2014 edition in Brazil, FIFA had made the hosts change their beer rules in the stadium. In 2003, Brazil banned the sale of beer in its soccer stadiums in an effort to combat vandalism in the stands. Before the 2014 World Cup, FIFA told Brazil that it had to lift that ban because the sale of beer is an intrinsic facet of World Cup traditions. They were told that it is not negotiable. Later the brazilian congress he was forced to sign a new bill that effectively ended an 11-year ban. And the beer flowed in the Brazilian stadiums.
In Qatar, however, FIFA has gone the other way: bowing to the demands of the host country. What happened to the old traditions here?
Through it all, the Iranians stood their ground, standing up for what they believe in and not being 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, let’s face it, is very, very scary. And yet, they chose to stick to their convictions, unafraid of potential sanctions against them, either now or when they return home.
They did what some of the biggest superstars in Europe and FIFA have been unable to or have chosen not to do: stand up for what they believe in.