Iranian fans celebrate World Cup win over Wales but continue to protest

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DOHA, Qatar – The woman stood crying at the gate of the football stadium surrounded by police officers and begged to be let back inside to find her husband. She wore the slogan of the Iranian uprising – Woman, Life, Freedom – on her black T-shirt and was kicked out of the stadium for it, she told passers-by.

The departing crowd, dizzy from Iran’s unlikely last-minute victory over Wales, rallied around them, trying to negotiate an end to the stalemate. Then Iranian fans began chanting in Farsi, “Leave her, leave her.” The surrounded and nervous-looking police relented and let the woman back onto the stadium grounds.

The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement at home against the clerical leadership, and the tensions that are inevitable and ongoing are spreading on the pitch.

Iran arrests footballer Voria Ghafouri amid investigation into World Cup team

So far in Iran’s first two games, fans have held up signs or waved banners in support of the protests. Clashes have broken out between pro-government and anti-government supporters in and around the stadium. The performances revealed the extent of Iran’s malaise and alarmed hosts Qatar, who said ahead of the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that the region’s political strife could develop during the tournament.

The protests began in September after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. A crackdown by authorities has killed hundreds of people, human rights groups say.

Members of the Iranian national team sit in a vise as the protest movement urges them to speak out against a government that will not tolerate dissent. On Thursday, Iranian authorities arrested a former international, Voria Ghafouri, in what was widely seen as a warning to World Cup squad members to keep their mouths shut.

They had done just that before their first game in Qatar against England, refusing to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a sign of support for the protest movement. On Friday, however, the team members opted to sing as whistles and boos echoed around Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium.

Ahead of the game against Wales, some Iranian fans said that while they were pleased with the team’s earlier refusal to sing, they worried that the players were under undue pressure to comment on politics.

“It’s a very delicate time,” said a 28-year-old Iranian man who lives in Britain and attended Friday’s game with his brother, who lives in the United States. “I don’t think we should throw hate and shame on the players,” added the man, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to protect relatives in Iran.

“They are young people who are here to play football,” said his brother.

In the spotlight, the Iran World Cup team silently nods to the protests at home

On Friday there were signs of more determined efforts to silence political protests, such as the removal of the woman who wore the t-shirt. A witness said police approached another Iranian supporter who had put black tape over the Iranian flag and her mouth and forced her to remove it.

Photos showed a police officer confronting another woman, who was wearing an Amini T-shirt and makeup, with blood spurting from her eyes.

It was not clear whether there was an order to ban political demonstrations from FIFA, football’s global governing body, or from the Qatari authorities, but the directive appeared to be unevenly enforced. Allen Shahipour, wearing a homemade T-shirt that read “Woman, Life, Freedom,” said he was allowed inside. So did a 34-year-old named Peari from Isfahan, who wore a button-down shirt printed with an artistic tribute to Amini.

“We are so happy” with Iran’s victory on Friday, she said. But that had little to do with the protest movement. “I don’t think this will affect anything,” she said.

Another man named Ajmal disagreed. “I think it’s good for the revolution,” he said of Friday’s game, including whistling during the anthem. “The government doesn’t hear us.”

The presence of Iranian officials at the game was widely suspected by participants. “They are inside. you are outside They look like spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said a 43-year-old man from Tehran wearing an Iranian jersey as he left the stadium with a childhood friend.

What was happening at home, the victory and the euphoria that went with it, was a welcome distraction for both of them. “We needed this win,” said the man in the jersey. His friend said the win was “complicated,” but he agreed.

After the England game, which Iran lost 6-2, the friend had chain smoked – not because of the defeat, but because of all the tension in the air. “It’s getting better,” he said.

The defeat prompted Iran coach Carlos Queiroz to chastise fans for criticizing the team for the pressure they put on its players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said Mac Taba, 33. At the stadium on Friday, despite all the noise, fans did just that, he said.

Also, “we had to win.”

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