The departing crowd, giddy with Iran’s improbable victory over Wales, gathered around her and tried to end the stalemate. Then Iranian fans started chanting in Farsi: “Leave her, leave her.” The police, surrounded and looking nervous, relented and let the woman back onto the stadium grounds.
The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement in the home country targeting her church leadership, and tensions, inescapable and persistent, run across the field.
Iran arrests footballer Voria Ghafouri during investigation into World Cup team
So far, during Iran’s first two matches, fans have held signs or waved banners in support of the protests. Quarrels have broken out between pro and anti-government supporters in the stadium and the surrounding area. The screenings have exposed the depth of Iran’s malaise and alarmed the Qatari hosts, who said ahead of the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that the region’s political conflicts could spill over into the tournament.
Protests in Iran began in September after the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody. A crackdown by the authorities has killed hundreds of people, human rights organizations say.
Members of Iran’s national team are in a vice, called upon by the protest movement to speak out against a government that will not tolerate dissent. On Thursday, authorities arrested a former national team player, Voria Ghafouri, in Iran in what was widely seen as a warning to members of the World Cup squad to keep their mouths shut.
They had done just that ahead of their first game in Qatar, against England, refusing to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a show of support for the protest movement. However, on Friday, the team members opted to sing as whistles and boos echoed in the Ahmad bin Ali stadium.
Before the game against Wales, some Iranian team supporters said that while they were happy with the team’s earlier refusal to sing, they were concerned that the players were facing undue pressure to comment on politics.
“It’s a very delicate time,” said a 28-year-old Iranian 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 hatred and shame on the players,” added the man, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relatives in Iran.
“They are young boys, here to play football,” said his brother.
There were signs on Friday of a more determined effort to silence political protest, such as the removal of the woman wearing the protest T-shirt. A witness said police approached another Iranian supporter who put black tape on the Iranian flag, as well as her mouth, and forced her to remove it.
Photos showed a police officer confronting another woman who was holding an Amini T-shirt and wearing makeup that resembled blood streaming from her eyes.
It was not clear whether there was a directive from FIFA, the global governing body of football, to suppress political expression, or from the Qatari authorities, but the policy seemed to be applied unevenly. Allen Shahipour, wearing a homemade “Woman, Life, Freedom” t-shirt, said he could enter. So was Peari, 34, from Isfahan, Iran, who wore a button-down shirt screenprinted with an artistic tribute to Amini.
“We are so happy” with Iran’s victory on Friday, she said. But for her, the victory 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 this is good for the revolution,” he said of Friday’s game, which included the national anthem whistle. “The government doesn’t hear us.”
Those present widely suspected that Iranian officials were present at the game. ‘They’re in. They’re outside. They look like spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said a 43-year-old man from Tehran, dressed in an Iranian shirt as he left the stadium with a childhood friend.
For both of them, the victory and the accompanying euphoria was a welcome distraction from what was happening at home. “We needed this win,” said the man in the jersey. His friend said the win was “complicated” but he agreed.
After the game against England, which Iran lost 6-2, the friend smoked chain cigarettes – not because of the loss, he said, but because of all the tension in the air. “Things are getting better,” he said.
The loss prompted Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, to chide fans for criticizing the team, for the pressure they said they had put on its players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said Mac Taba, 33. At the stadium on Friday, despite all the noise, the fans had done just that, he said.
Besides, “we had to win,” he said.