Iranian protesters celebrate World Cup defeat amid fears of players’ return


Iran’s World Cup defeat by the United States was met with cheers and celebrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Tuesday night as protesters hailed the country’s exit from the tournament as a blow to the ruling regime.

The nation were eliminated from the tournament in Qatar after Tuesday’s 1-0 defeat, ending a campaign marred by anti-government protests that have been raging at home for months.

However, there are concerns over the safety of the Iranian players returning home via the Persian Gulf after the team initially refused to sing the Iranian national anthem before their first game, apparently to show solidarity with protesters. The team’s families were also threatened with jail and torture ahead of the game, said a source involved with security at the games.

People in several Iranian cities celebrated in their homes and apartment buildings shortly after the final whistle, which rang in the early hours local time on Wednesday, while videos posted on social media showed people honking their car horns, singing and whistling.

“I am glad that the government is losing to the people,” a witness to the celebrations in a city in the Kurdish region, whom CNN did not name for security reasons, told CNN on Wednesday.

Norway-based Iranian rights group Hengaw released several videos with similar scenes. “People in Paveh celebrate Iran national team’s loss to America at the World Cup in Qatar, chanting ‘Down with Jash (traitor)’,” Hengaw said in a post.

Demonstrations have rocked Iran for several months, sparking a deadly crackdown by the authorities. The nationwide uprising was first sparked by the death of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in mid-September after being arrested by the country’s vice squad. Since then, protesters across Iran have dealt with a range of grievances with the regime.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said the country was mired in a “full-blown human rights crisis” as authorities cracked down on the protests.

Football has become an increasingly hot flashpoint in recent weeks, with the World Cup putting a global spotlight on the turmoil in the country.

The Iran national team would have advanced to the second round of the World Cup with a win or a draw against USA, but the side will now head home after being eliminated from the group stage.

“I’m really sorry on behalf of our players, our group, that we didn’t take our chance to qualify for the next round,” midfielder Saeid Ezatolah told reporters after the game. “I hope our fans and our people in Iran forgive us. And I’m just sorry, that’s it.”

The team’s return is being closely watched amid fears the players could face retaliation for a perceived brief demonstration of support for the protests, which drew international attention and praise from human rights groups.

The country’s flag and national anthem have been rejected by protesters as symbols of the current regime. And following Iranian players’ refusal to sing the Iranian national anthem in their opening game against England on November 21, a source linked to the security of the games told CNN that the players had attended a meeting with members of the corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

According to the source, they were told that their families would face “violence and torture” if they did not sing the national anthem or join a political protest against the Tehran regime.

The players sang the anthem on Tuesday and before their second game against Wales last Friday, in which Iran won 2-0.

Hours before Tuesday’s game kicked off, Iranian authorities said a former national soccer team member Parviz Boroumand, who was arrested this month for criticizing the government, has been released on bail, state news agency IRNA said.

Boroumand was arrested during protests in Tehran in mid-November, Iranian media reported. Iranian-Kurdish footballer Voria Ghafouri was also released on bail earlier Tuesday.

Iranian soccer legend Ali Karimi, sometimes dubbed the “Asian Maradona,” meanwhile, has said he received death threats from his family members after vocally supporting protests.

The government has labeled him as one of the “main leaders” of the demonstrations and issued an arrest warrant for him in early October on charges of “harmonizing with the enemy” and “inciting riots,” both charges that Iran’s Supreme Judicial Council said be punished with death.

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