Iran’s soccer team declined to sing the national anthem before their opening World Cup match against England on Monday, an act that was widely interpreted as a show of support for anti-government demonstrations back home.
The team, Team Melli, has drawn criticism and controversy for competing in the competition, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had earlier issued a warning to athletes not to “disrespect” the nation.
The national anthem of Iran was played with complete silence from the team. The players occasionally heard Persian chants from the crowd during the game, “shameless! shameless!”
The team later lost to England 6-2, which was their worst World Cup defeat ever.
Towards the end of the game, anti-government chants and slogans in Tehran’s central district could be heard, including “death to the dictator.” People had reportedly taken to the streets in Yusufabad and Pasdaran to celebrate the team’s defeat, according to a dissident media channel on Telegram. The reports cannot be confirmed by Bloomberg.
In Tehran, internet access was severely limited almost immediately after the game. Internet censorship watchdog NetBlocks reported that there had been a “major disruption” to online services in Iran and that many users had lost access to the internet.
The Iranian team’s mainly young fans have urged the footballers to show solidarity with the protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody in Tehran in September after allegedly disobeying Islamic dress codes. Officials want the players to demonstrate their loyalty to the country’s struggling Islamic establishment.
The game on Monday also took place at the same time as an uptick in violence in a number of Kurdish cities in western Iran, where rights organizations reported that over the previous 24 hours, at least 13 people had died as a result of a crackdown on protests by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and additional airstrikes on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.
As unrest intensifies, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards step up their crackdown.
Iranians across political lines have historically praised Team Melli for defeating much more powerful foreign opponents and uniting the nation.
Large-scale street celebrations in Iran have preceded previous appearances at World Cup competitions, frequently coinciding with periods of geopolitical unrest or crisis, such as their 1998 World Cup group stage victory over the US.
The team has received criticism from protesters for remaining silent, and the government has also used their popularity for propaganda.
Iranian sports teams have also expressed their opinions at other competitions. On November 8, the male water polo team declined to participate in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national anthem. For the first time in decades, Iranian athletes competed in public at international competitions, angering the authorities.