‘Guilty conscience’: Iranians in London torn over cheering on their team | World Cup 2022

Defeat to England was not necessarily at the forefront of every Iranian supporter’s mind in Finchley when their team was beaten 6-2 in their opening group game at the World Cup on Monday.

Instead, the internal politics of the country thousands of miles away left many in the north London community, which is home to a large Iranian diaspora, torn over the continuing national uprising and government crackdown.

While some fans stood cheering England in a show of protest, others proudly supported their country but not the ruling Islamic Republic government. For many, the player’s silence during the national anthem did not go unnoticed.

Fans watch the Iran vs England match at the King of Prussia pub in Finchley
Fans watch the Iran v England match at the King of Prussia pub in Finchley, where many members of the Iranian community in London live. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Saheil Ghaffari, 33, admitted to having a “little guilty conscience” supporting the team during the national uprising but said the player’s decision not to sing their country’s national anthem was a show of solidarity with the Iranian people.

“I think the result is a clear reflection on the sort of political dilemma they are all in,” said Ghaffari, who was born in Iran. “In the Iranian political atmosphere it is very difficult to have an opinion, so I understand that they’re very limited to what they can say.”

The match comes two months after anti-government protests first erupted in Iran, spurred by the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody following charges that she violated a mandatory head covering law for women.

Protests since have swept across the country, demanding an end to the clerical leadership that has prompted a violent crackdown, killing hundreds of protesters and the arrest of thousands.

Others, however, were not as sympathetic to the players against the backdrop of protests.

Moo B outside the Joiner's Pub, N London
Moo B outside the Joiner’s Pub. “I didn’t support Iran because they are for the terrorist government,” he says. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

“I didn’t support Iran because they are for the terrorist government,” said 38-year-old Moo B, who was born in Tehran and has participated in recent anti-government protests in London. Every day, he cries “for the Iranian dissidents”, added Moo, who supported England in Monday’s match instead.

Standing beside him in the pub teeming with fans for both teams was 21-year-old Alex Denle, who before the match, wasn’t attuned to the politics embroiling Iran.

“But from what I gather, there are a lot of issues in the government in Iran. A lot of the supporters over here are supporting England rather than Iran,” he added.

At half-time, with Iran 3-0 down, 24-year-old Sam B, who asked not to have his last name shared, expressed conflicting feelings: wanting to see the team lose because of the political situation while noting a win would lift people’s spirits.

“But, to be honest, even if England wins, from the looks of it, I’ll still be happy,” he added. It has been 18 years since Sam returned to Iran, where he was born. In one word, he summarized the situation back home, bluntly, as “shit”.

“It’s not nice to see what’s happening to people. I don’t necessarily need to be there to understand what they’re going through,” he said.

Mehdi, 54, was equally conflicted. “We are all confused, we want Iran to win but because of the situation in Iran, we don’t know,” he petered off.

“We want them to be people’s voice but we don’t see much,” Mehdi said, adding he would have liked to see the players take a bolder stance. “Even right now there’s so much demonstration, uprising, killing from the government towards people.”

Mehdi, who asked not to share his last name, was born in Tehran and now lives in central Finchley. In support of the movement, he has also been attending London-based protests.

“There are so many questions we want the government to answer, we always feel disappointed. We just try our best to maybe be another voice, but we are 100% sure they don’t listen to us because of their fanatical religious beliefs,” he said. “But we try.”

Since childhood, Shervin, 24, has been watching Iran play. “Obviously I understand everything that’s going on,” he said before entering the pub in his Iranian jersey before kick-off.

“But you know,” he said, on the decision to support England: “I’ve been waiting for years for this tournament.”

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