Giddy from Iran’s incredible last-minute victory over Wales, the crowd gathered around him, trying to negotiate an end to the standoff. Later, the Iranian fans began chanting in Farsi, “Leave him, leave him.” Surrounded and visibly upset, the police let the woman back into the stadium.
The looming backdrop of Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement targeting its clerical leadership, and the inevitable and ongoing tension spills over onto the pitch.
Voria Gafouri was arrested during the inspection of the World Cup football team in Iran.
At Iran’s first two games so far, fans have waved signs or banners supporting the protests. A dispute broke out between pro-government and anti-government supporters in and around the stadium. The demonstrations revealed the depth of Iran’s concerns and alarmed hosts Qatar, who said before the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that political conflict could erupt in the region during the tournament.
Protests in Iran began in September after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. Human rights groups say the government’s crackdown has killed hundreds of people.
Members of Iran’s national team are on visas, urged by the protest movement to protest against a government that does not tolerate any dissent. Authorities in Iran arrested former national team player Voria Ghafouri on Thursday, in what was seen as a warning to members of the World Cup squad to keep their mouths shut.
They did so ahead of their first game against England in Qatar, refusing to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a show of support for the protest movement. And on Friday, team members chose to sing as whistles and cheers echoed around the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.
Ahead of the game against Wales, several Iran fans were happy that the team had refrained from singing, but expressed concern that the players were under too much pressure to comment on politics.
“It’s a very delicate time,” said the 28-year-old Iranian, who lives in Britain and attended Friday’s game with his brother, who lives in the United States. “I don’t think we should be hating and shaming the players,” added the man, who, like the others, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relatives in Iran.
“They’re young kids here to play football,” his brother said.
There were signs of a more determined attempt to silence political protest, such as the removal of a woman wearing a protest shirt on Friday. The witness said that police approached another Iranian supporter who had an Iranian flag and a black tape over his mouth and forced him to remove it.
In the photos, the police officer was confronted by another woman who was holding an Amini shirt and wearing make-up that appeared to be bleeding from her eyes.
It was not clear whether FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, had a directive to stop political demonstrations or Qatari authorities, but the policy was unevenly enforced. Allen Shahipour, wearing a homemade T-shirt with the words “Women, Life, Freedom,” said he was let in. Peari, a 34-year-old man from Isfahan, Iran, also wore a silk-screened button-up shirt with an artistic tribute to Amini.
He said that we are very happy with Iran’s victory on Friday. But for him, the victory had nothing to do with the protest movement. “I don’t think it’s going to affect anything,” he said.
Another man, Ajmal, disagreed. “I think it’s good for the revolution,” he said of Friday’s game, including the booing during the anthem. “The government doesn’t hear us”
The participants suspected that Iranian officials were involved in the game. “They’re in. They are outside. They appear as spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said the 43-year-old from Tehran, wearing an Iranian jersey, as he left the stadium with his childhood friend.
For the two of them, the victory and the accompanying euphoria were a distraction from everything going on at home. “We needed this win,” said the man in uniform. His friend said the win was “complicated,” but he agreed.
After England’s 6-2 defeat by Iran, his friend chain-smoked – not because of the defeat, he said, but because of all the tension in the air. “It’s getting better,” he said.
The defeat prompted Iran coach Carlos Queiroz to criticize fans for criticizing the team and pressuring his players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said 33-year-old Mac Taba. In the stadium on Friday, amid all the noise, the fans did just that, he said.
Besides, he said, “we should have won.”