Iranian government supporters confront protesters at the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) – Tensions ran high during Iran’s second match at the World Cup on Friday, as fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting and stadium security confiscated flags, T-shirts and other items expressing support for the protest movement that has gripped the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were prevented by stadium security from bringing Persian pre-revolutionary flags to the game against Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags were snatched from their hands by pro-Iran supporters, who insulted fans wearing T-shirts with the slogan of the protest movement sweeping the country: “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

Unlike their first game against England, the Iranian players sang along to their national anthem before the game, while some fans inside the stadium cried, whistled and booed.

The national team has been scrutinized for any comments or gestures related to the nationwide protests that have rocked Iran for weeks.

Screaming fights broke out in rows outside the stadium, between fans shouting “Women, life, freedom” and others shouting back “The Islamic Republic!”

Mobs of men surrounded three different women who were giving interviews to foreign media about the protests outside the stadium, disrupting the broadcast as they angrily chanted “The Islamic Republic of Iran!” Many female fans appeared shaken when Iranian government supporters yelled at them in Farsi and filmed them at close range on their cellphones.

After Iran’s 2-0 win, Iranian fans spurted out of the stadium waving national flags. They rounded up a group of protesters holding up photos of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death on September 16 in morality police custody first sparked the protests, and shouted “Victory!” over chanting of Amini’s name.

A 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iran fans refused to give her last name for fear of government reprisals, began to cry as screaming men blowing horns surrounded her and filmed her face. She had the words “Woman Life Freedom” painted on her face.

“We want to draw attention to his arrest and the women’s rights movement,” said Maryam, who lives in London but is originally from Tehran. “I’m not here to fight anyone, but people have attacked me and called me a terrorist. I’m just here to say that football doesn’t matter when people are getting killed in the streets.”

Maryam and her friends wore hats emblazoned with the name of an outspoken Iranian former soccer player, Voria Ghafouri, who had criticized Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. She said supporters of the Iranian government took their hats off their heads.

Ghafouri, who is Kurdish, was a star member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup team but surprisingly wasn’t included in the squad for this year in Qatar.

“It’s obvious the game has been very politicized this week. You see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iran fan who also declined to give his last name. “I think Voria’s arrest also had a major impact on Iranian society.”

Angry protesters in Iran are venting their anger at social and political oppression and the government-mandated headscarf, or hijab, for women. The demonstrations have quickly turned into calls for the demise of the Islamic Republic. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests began, according to the monitoring group Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The turbulence overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. Monday’s opening game against England was the scene of protests as anti-government fans waved signs and chanted in the stands. Before this game that Iran lost 6-2, his players remained silent while their national anthem was played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday they sang the anthem and celebrated as they scored two goals against Wales.

Ayeh Shams, an Iranian from the United States, said security forces confiscated her flag because it had the word “women” on it.

“We are only here to enjoy the games and to provide a platform for the Iranian people who are fighting against the Islamic regime,” Shams said.

Zeinlabda Arwa, a security guard at the stadium, confirmed that authorities had been ordered to confiscate everything but the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Whether you are talking about Iran or Qatar or any other country, you are only allowed to bring in the normal flag,” she said.

An angry group of Iranian government supporters shouted at Elyas Doerr, a 16-year-old Iranian boy living in Arizona who wore the Persian flag as a cape until he took it off and put it in his pocket.

“They don’t like that it’s a political statement,” he said, adding that other Iranian fans have approached him to say they appreciate the gesture.

A 32-year-old Iranian woman, who lives in southern Spain and who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals, ran around after the game to retrieve her hat and flag, which had been confiscated by stadium security. She said Qatari police ordered her to wipe off the names of Iranian protesters killed and arrested by security forces, which she had written on her arms and chest at the behest of Iranian government supporters. The game left only traces of ink on her chafed skin.

“Today’s football experience was the most intimidating I’ve ever had, before and after the game,” she said. She described dozens of men surrounding her, trying to smother her face with their Iranian flags and snapping their shields while Qatari security forces stood by.

“To be honest, I don’t care about winning. That’s not my priority.”

After the game, Iranian state television broadcast patriotic songs and showed footage of people cheering across the country.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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