Iran’s footballers could face reprisals if they fail to sing the national anthem in their remaining World Cup group games, after a politician said the country “will never allow anyone to insult our anthem”.
The football team stayed silent while the anthem was played before their 6-2 defeat to England on Monday, in a symbolic show of support for the protest movement that has roiled Iran since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody in September.
Team Melli, as the national team is known, had previously drawn criticism from protesters for even competing in Qatar, and footage of them bowing in front of President Ebrahim Raisi at a send-off meeting drew more anger.
On Tuesday, Mehdi Chamran, the chairman of Tehran city council, said: “We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem and flag. Iranian civilization has a history of several thousand years, this civilization is as old as the total of European and American civilizations.”
A conservative MP in Kurdistan, meanwhile, called for the national team to be replaced by faithful and revolutionary youth willing to sing their national anthem.
Iran’s heavily censored media made very little mention of the team not singing the national anthem.
Kayhan, probably the newspaper closest to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, vented its fury at the way in which protesters had cheered an English victory, saying “for weeks foreign media had conducted ruthless and unprecedented psychological-media war against this team”.
“This campaign did not spare any effort to create a gap between the people of Iran and the members of the Iranian national football team, as well as producing false dichotomies,” it said, adding that “this political-media movement, mainly Londoners, with the support and coordination of local patriots, from movie and sports celebrities to chain media and Telegram channels, and even reformist political figures, have joined hands to attack the players”.
It said the Portuguese-born head coach, Carlos Queiroz, had accused critics at the post-match press conference of trying to destroy the team’s morale. “I have to tell those who do not want to support the national team that it is better to stay at home, no one needs them,” he was reported as saying.
The revolt against the national team was demonstrated with videos showing crowds on the streets hailing the England victory and chanting “Death to the dictator” during the match. A restaurant in Tehran that had backed England on its Instagram page was shut down and sealed by the authorities on Tuesday.
In an interview with the reformist newspaper Etemaad, Ali Latifi, a former Iranian national team striker, said the team had fallen between two stools, neither saying they only wanted to discuss football nor wholeheartedly supporting the protests, and as a result had satisfied no one . “When some spectators boo, the team suffers,” he said. “Even though it was not broadcast on the radio, the players hear it and it affects their mood.” He also blamed negative coaching tactics that he said had instilled fear in the players.
In late September, the team opted to wear black jackets to cover the country’s colors in their friendly against Senegal.
Inside Iran, the cycle of protests, repression, funerals, internet shutdowns and strikes have continued. The most intense protests are currently in Iranian Kurdistan, where the human rights group Hengaw reported that seven people had been killed since Sunday in Javanroud alone and that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps had started using heavy military armory and live ammunition to quell the protests.
Thousands of Kurds on Tuesday attended the funeral of a 16-year-old boy, Karwan Shukri, killed the previous night in Piranshahr.
Heavy censorship of the Iranian media was illustrated this week by the authorities closing Jahan Sanat newspaper after it published an interview in which a famous former university professor questioned the official line that 10-year-old Kian Pirfalak, shot in the chest while in a car in Izeh in the east of the oil-rich Khuzestan province, was killed last week by “terrorists”, and not by the security forces.
The newspaper’s manager and the journalist responsible for the piece were summoned by the Tehran prosecutor’s office. They are among a wide group of people including actors and reformist politicians who have been summoned to explain recent remarks suggesting the government had not been telling the truth.
Kian’s mother initially blamed the security forces for his death, but later retracted the comments in what appeared to have been a forced TV appearance. The boy’s father remains in hospital with serious gunshot wounds.