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Analysis | Iran’s regime is already a big loser at the World Cup


There is a long tradition of authoritarian states using the World Cup to divert attention – both domestic and foreign – from their tyranny. The Islamic Republic milked buckets of selfish propaganda from its national team’s participation in the quadrennial competition, never more than in 1998 when Iran defeated the “Great Satan” in Lyon, France.

Iranians, like much of the rest of the world, are football mad; the country comes to a standstill when Team Melli, as the national team is called, participates in the World Cup. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself stayed up late to watch the famous victory in Lyon. When the team returned home, he reportedly invited Hamid Estili, who scored the first of two goals against the US, to his residence and kissed him on the forehead.

The regime played off the victory as a symbol of its defiance of American perfidy and the wild celebrations across Iran as proof that the nation was united, behind not only Team Melli but also the government.

That won’t work this time around, regardless of how the Iranian team fares against the US when they clash next Tuesday in Doha in the final version of the tournament. For starters, the streets are now a stage for protest, not celebration. For more than two months, Iranians have been calling for the downfall of the regime. The regime would find it hard to boast of resistance to the West, as security forces intensified their violent crackdown on demonstrators even on the day of the first match, especially in the northwestern city of Mahabad.

On the other hand, Team Melli is not playing along with the propaganda this time. Any hopes the Tehran regime had of using the World Cup to divert attention from its relentless efforts to quell an ongoing protest movement were dashed when Iran’s players refused to sing the national anthem for their opening game against England, the Theocrats’ second game. choice Western bugaboo.

The team thus joined other Iranian sports teams and athletes who either remained mute during the playing of the national anthem or used other gestures to express their solidarity with the protesters. Afterwards, football captain Ehsan Hajsafi was blunt: “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not good and our people are not happy,” he said. “We’re here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be their voice or respect them.”

Team Melli’s defiance is doubly noteworthy as officials warned players not to show solidarity with the protests. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself had admonished them not to “despise” the country. Before the tournament, the team met President Ebrahim Raisi and gave him the number 12 jersey.

This had earned them the scorn of the protesters, some of whom dubbed them “Team Mullah” in street chants and on social media. Some Iranian fans at the stadium in Doha were heard shouting “Shameless! Shameless!” at the players.

Since Iranian state television did not show the team’s mute protest, their solidarity with the demonstrators at home was not immediately apparent. After the game, videos posted on social media platforms showed some Iranians celebrating the national team’s defeat by honking cars. One particularly remarkable video shows a couple waving the Union Jack.

Did Team Melli redeem itself in the eyes of the protesters by refusing to sing the national anthem? The behavior of the players and fans ahead of their next game against Wales on Friday will be instructive.

Meanwhile, you can be sure that Iranian officials will put enormous pressure on players to sing lavishly before their match against the Americans – if nothing else, then to push the narrative that Iranians hate the US more than their own rulers despise . But the propaganda value of the World Cup for the regime will already be exhausted.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Qatar’s World Cup is a victory for globalization: Adrian Wooldridge

• Olympic Hype Can’t Hide China’s World Cup Debacle: Adam Minter

• How England’s Journey of Redemption Swallowed My Life: Matthew Brooker

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on foreign affairs. Before that, he was editor-in-chief at Hindustan Times, editor-in-chief at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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