Iran’s World Cup dream over, but struggle for women’s rights and freedom continues

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“I am not afraid to talk, even if I go to prison.”

It’s three hours to kick off and the atmosphere near the Al Thumama Stadium, the exterior of which is shaped in the motif of the woven cap Taqiyah, is dense, thick with tension and apprehension. Iranian fans, a mix of home-based supporters and the diaspora, are mulling about, but at the same time watching each other carefully: Who is pro-regime? Who isn’t? Who is wearing a message of support for the nationwide protesters? It seemed that the match between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran was just about the last thing on everyone’s mind.

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It’s also how Iran got their World Cup campaign underway – with an improbable 6-2 defeat to England. The players had fallen victim to the pressure cooker and political ramifications that involve playing for Team Melli, but, perhaps, the match against the United States represented, given the geopolitical backdrop and the on-field stakes, an encounter of a different magnitude altogether.

The diplomatic feud over the removal of official emblem and two lines of Islamic script from its flag, a tense pre-match news conference, and the endless conjecture over the ins-and-out of Team Melli all formed a part of the rich tapestry of this match, not quite the mother of all games, but it came quite close. This game transcended the sport, at least from the Iranian perspective. It was not the geopolitical shock of the late 90s when the pair met at the World Cup in France, but, again, a flashpoint for the nationwide protests back home prompted by the death of Mahsa Amini in custody of the morality police.

Except, at the Al Thumama Stadium, pictures or drawings of Amini were conspicuously absent. At Iran’s first match, supporters were asked to wear their Amini T-shirts inside out when entering the stadium, at the second match such T-shirts were simply confiscated, and for the USA match supporters simply left them at home.

Qatar police officers stand as fans arrive ahead of the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

They were wise to do so. Amid all the controversy over the ban on the OneLove armband, a protest against treatment of LGBTQ community in Qatar by some European federations, and other political symbols at World Cup venues, security was tightened at Iran – USA match.

On the surface, Americans and Iranians were fraternising, but that joviality masked husked voices and whispers. Iranian fan Saba, draped in an Iranian flag and with an American flag painted on both her cheeks, was asked to show her bra to ensure she was not hiding ‘dissenting’ messages.

All Palestinian flags, a prominent feature at this tournament, even at Qatar’s final World Cup match against the Netherlands, were confiscated as well. A family had their Persian flag removed, prompting a young girl to burst into tears.

“We want to be the voice of Iranian women, but they don’t let us talk,” said Saba. “Are you going to show your underwear? It’s the Iranian government controlling. It’s very scary. I am feeling safer around Americans than with these guys. It’s full of spies. They are taking photos. Who knows what plan they have for us – are they going to try to kidnap me?”

But, while organisers banned protests, they couldn’t keep them out entirely. On her left arm, Naba, a member of the diaspora as well, had painted the words ‘Women, life, freedom’, a rallying cry of the protesters. She felt conflicted. She said: “There is so much pressure on them, I can’t blame the team [for not speaking up more]. I want Iran to win, but I don’t want Iran to win.”

“This is the most brutal regime,” added Saba. “The amount of bloodshed is insane.”

Once inside the ground, Iranian fans, including thousands of pro-regime supporters, produced deafening decibels, generating the best atmosphere yet at the World Cup. Reluctantly, Iran’s players sang the national anthem, but at the end, they all bowed their heads, a significant gesture.

In the stands, security pounced at those who had smuggled in protest signs. They ripped up a sign with presumably the name of Mahsa Amini on it. Out of 483 journalists in the press box, two were detained briefly for photographing or filming incidents that organisers didn’t want the world to see. There was a skirmish after the match between pro-regime fans and protesters.

Ultimately, the match itself mattered a little less. In a chaotic and frantic finale Iran, 1-0 behind following a Christian Pulisic goal, claimed a penalty for a foul by Carter-Vickers. Iran’s players pleaded with referee Mateu Lahoz, even minutes after the final whistle.

By then, Carlos Queiroz, often a fiery character, had already shaken the Spaniard’s hand and conceded defeat. Saeid Ezatolahi was in tears. He was not the only one. Iran’s World Cup is over, but the struggle for women’s rights and freedom isn’t.

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Iran’s World Cup dream over, but struggle for women’s rights and freedom continues
Iran’s World Cup dream over, but struggle for women’s rights and freedom continues
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