'I want them to lose': Protests reach World Cup as Iran face England

Signs bearing protest slogans were in the stands and the national team did not sing the anthem

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The first Iranian match of the 2022 World Cup on Monday did not escape the large-scale protests at home.

As Iranian fans began to filter into the Khalifa Stadium in Doha before the start of Team Melli's World Cup campaign against England, many wore their support for the month-long protests against the government on their clothing, or painted on their faces.

Demonstrations against the regime began in September, when 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Tehran in September after allegedly violating dress codes. Her family said police beat her to death.

Iranian football fans display a flag with the middle symbol sliced out before the England and Iran match at the Khalifa International Stadium in in Doha, Qatar. AP

Iran’s players refused to sing the national anthem — a gesture widely seen as a pledge of support for anti-government protests back home.

Iranian fans also supported the protest.

After the 6-2 defeat by England, one lawyer from Tehran, who did not want to be named, said: “Mehdi Torabi is a supporter of the government and he has been shamed by his team. The government of Iran killed more than 50 people today who were protesting in Mahabad, this surely must be the end of the Islamic republic of Iran.

“These protests by our team can make a difference. The world must know this government of Iran is not the real government of the Iranian people. Most people do not support them, and European countries and the US must stop all negotiations with this government, increase pressure on them and make the right decisions.

“This team is the right voice of the Iran people.”

Other fans told The National they were happy to cheer England’s six goals.

Thousands have taken to the streets to protest, but a government crackdown has killed at least 370 people, including 47 children, the Iran Human Rights group estimated.

The protests are the largest display of dissent from Iranians in years.

In Doha, as the tournament kicked off, women and men held up signs bearing one of the protest movement's most popular slogans “Women. Life. Freedom.” Others wore T-shirts bearing the names of female protesters killed by Iranian security forces in recent weeks.

At home, women are banned from football matches.

“A big achievement for protesters would be to have the choice to wear the hijab,” spectator Mariam, 27 told AP in Doha. Her brown hair draped over her shoulders and ran long down her back.

“But after that, women will go for their right to be in stadiums.”

Some of the Iranian flags on display had the middle chopped out or covered over.

Iran's flag was changed after the 1979 revolution from a sword-bearing lion in front of a sun to a new national emblem of four swords forming a stylised version of the word Allah. The takbir was also added to the flag.

The protests have affected the fervour with which some fans support their team and led to a debate on whether to support the team at all.

“The protest movement has overshadowed the football,” Kamran, a linguistics professor who lives in the northern province of Mazandaran, told AP. “I want Iran to lose these three games.”

Before travelling to Doha, the team met hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photos of the players with Mr Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral while street unrest raged, drawing criticism on social media.

“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not play,” university student Elmira, 24, told Reuters from Tehran.

“It is not Iran's team, it is the Islamic republic's team.”

The team did not sing along to their national anthem at the opening of the game,

On Sunday, Iran defender Ehsan Hajsafi said his team could still serve as a voice for the people.

“We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy.

“We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice. I hope conditions change as to the expectations of the people,” he said, without directly mentioning the unrest.

Updated: November 22, 2022, 12:21 PM