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A soccer team once united Iran, now it reflects its divisions

2. Iran
(Photo: Twitter)
Iran’s national soccer team has historically been viewed as a representative of the country’s people, not of the Islamic Republic’s government.اضافة اعلان

Team Melli, as the squad is known, has been embraced as an apolitical force, and as a secular passion that reflected a certain ideal, the Iran of everyone’s imagination. For years, the team has brought unity and joy to a fractious nation. Support for it has been effectively unconditional.

Until now.

As the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the first time the world’s biggest sporting event has been held in the Middle East, the Iranian team finds itself in an unfamiliar, polarizing position.

Team Melli has become ensnared in the internal politics of Iran, where a continuing national uprising led by women and young people is demanding an end to clerical rule, and seeking more equitable treatment and increased personal freedoms. The protests were spurred by the mid-September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, a young woman who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on charges of violating a law requiring head coverings for women.

Some activists inside and outside Iran have called for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to prohibit Iran from competing in the World Cup. They cite the government’s crackdown on protesters, limited stadium access for women to watch matches, and more overtly political complaints, like Iran’s providing weaponized drones to Russia to aid its invasion of Ukraine.

A ban seems highly unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter to all World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to focus on soccer ahead of politics. But support for Team Melli is now divided even at home in this emotional and visceral moment, analysts, fans, journalists, and former coaches and players said.

The divide was clear in the wounded voice of Jalal Talebi, 80, who coached his native Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he guided Team Melli to its most important victory ever, against the US. (Iran is again in the same first-round group as the US in Qatar.) Talebi called soccer “part of life” in an interview, but said that he supported the protests and believed it was “not the time” to participate in the World Cup. He said he may decline to serve as a commentator for international television, and may not even watch Iran’s games from his home in the Bay Area, in the US.

“How could I feel to watch football when my neighbor, my brother, my countryman, and countrywoman are in such a bad situation?” Talebi said.

Mohammad Motamedi, 44, a popular Iranian vocalist, was chosen to be Team Melli’s official singer for this World Cup but declined, writing on his Instagram page, “under the circumstances, I don’t even feel like talking, let alone singing.”

Even players in the national team appear divided on whether, or how forcefully, they should show support for the protesters.

According to a report on Twitter and Telegram by an independent journalist in Iran, the team’s star forwards, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Terami, got into a heated argument in September at a training camp in Austria. The dispute reportedly took place after Azmoun posted on Instagram that “national team rules” suppressed players from expressing their views about the national protests, while also saying that he was willing to “sacrifice” his place in the World Cup “for one hair on the heads of Iranian women.” Azmoun briefly scrubbed his Instagram feed, and then resumed with more circumspect postings.

Analysts said that some fans had accused players of being co-opted by the government, their loyalty secured with real estate deals and imported luxury cars. Others accused the players of appearing insensitive at the Austrian training camp in the days after the death of Amini, by celebrating too excitedly after an exhibition victory against Uruguay and holding a 30th birthday party for goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

“The excitement and joy we always felt for soccer and the World Cup is nonexistent this time around,” said Amir Ali, 54, an engineer in Tehran, who asked that his last name not be used. “We don’t care, and some people say if Team Melli loses, it’s a defeat for the regime.”

Those more sympathetic to the players note that they are undoubtedly facing enormous pressure — and perhaps even threats from the government — not to side publicly with the protesters as they seek to advance their careers in a tournament held once every four years. Their concentration will surely be tested. And their every move will continue to be heavily scrutinized.

Players, though, may be growing more emboldened. On November 7, the powerful club team Esteghlal, which includes several prospective World Cup players, won Iran’s Super Cup, but Amir Arsalan Motahari, who scored the winning goal, did not celebrate. Instead, he shed a tear captured in a photograph. Another player, Mehdi Ghayedi, wrote the name of a young fan who was shot and killed by security forces in the northern city of Babol on his jersey.

Afterward, Esteghlal’s players kept their arms somberly crossed during the trophy ceremony. The team’s official Twitter page declared that “no one is happy” above a video of the muted postgame ceremony.

One player, Siavash Yazdani, told Iranian broadcast media that it was “a bitter victory during bitter times” and dedicated the match “to the women of Iran and the families of all the victims”.

A day later, Azmoun, the Team Melli star, posted “the honorable Esteghlal” on his Instagram page with a blue heart, the team color, against a black screen of mourning.


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