AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Iran’s national anthem was accompanied by half-hearted singing or uttering of words from players and jeering whistles from thousands of fans at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium before the team played Wales in their second game at the World Cup on Friday.
The scene and sounds were unlike Monday’s Iran opener against England, when players treated the anthem with stoic silence, a form of protest that drew global attention. The Iranian team, regulars at the tournament and long a unifying force in a divided country, have been trying for months to navigate Iran’s thorny domestic politics, caught between government expectations and an ongoing national insurgency.
Ahead of Friday’s game against Wales, stadium footage showed a man sobbing as the Iranian anthem was played. When an emotional woman was shown, fans erupted in cheers. Elsewhere, others have booed. On the seats, a woman unveiled a No. 22 jersey with the name Mahsa Amini on it. She was the 22-year-old who died in police custody in September, sparking a growing movement of discontent over freedoms and women’s rights under Iran’s theocratic rule.
However, it was the actions of the Iranian players that drew the most attention. After standing silently during the anthem before their first game, they seemed to sing with varying degrees of engagement amid a mixture of boos and cheers.
The Iranian fan base may be as incessantly loud as any here at the World Cup. That was before the game when his fans and those cheering for Wales emerged from the subway and flocked towards the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. A woman emerging from the subway began a chant: “Say her name! mahsa! Amini!” – that has become common here. Others wore blue T-shirts that read “Woman Life Freedom”. One man wore a shirt that read “Arrest of Lawyers = Beginning of Your End” in English on the front and Arabic on the back.
World Cup security officials have been trained to be on the lookout for such political displays. Ahead of Monday’s game against England, fans were told they would not be allowed to bring or display Iran’s pre-revolutionary flag into the stadium. Grim-faced police officers in groups of five or six, wearing black and blue vests with “security cells” written on the back, patrolled outside the arena on Friday. A group of 10 officers surrounded a woman, argued with her and took something from her, possibly a shirt.
Freed and frustrated, she disappeared into the stadium.