As It Happens·Q&A

Iranian World Cup team's national anthem was snub too little, too late: activist

If Iran’s national soccer team really wanted to show solidarity with protesters, they wouldn’t be playing the World Cup at all, says activist Negin Shiraghaei.

Negin Shiraghaei says if the team wants to support the protests, they shouldn't play at all

Men wearing red jerseys stand shoulder to shoulder, arms links, with solemn faces, and children wearing blue jerseys stand in front of them.
Iran's national soccer team remained silent during the national anthem ahead of their World Cup match on Monday, in what is widely viewed as a display of solidarity with protesters back home. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

If Iran's national soccer team really wanted to show solidarity with protesters, they wouldn't be playing the World Cup at all, says activist Negin Shiraghaei.

The team remained silent during the Iranian national anthem before their opening World Cup match on Monday, in what was widely seen as a sign of support for protesters back home.

Iranians have been rising up against the theocratic government since September, when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died in police custody after being arrested for flouting the country's strict Islamic dress code. Amini's family say she was beaten to death by police, but Iran maintains she died from pre-existing medical conditions.

The soccer players were mostly silent about the upheaval until the day before their first match, when Captain Ehsan Hajsafi said during a press conference that the team sympathizes with protesters, and that "conditions in our country are not right."

The team had come under fire earlier in the week when they were photographed meeting President Ebrahim Raisi, and two players bowed to him.

Shiraghaei, an Iranian women's rights champion based in London, says the team's show of solidarity at the World Cup was too little, too late. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

What did you think when you saw the Iranian players at the World Cup raise their heads and not sing along to the anthem?

Not singing the national anthem was a good thing maybe two weeks ago. People expected much more from the team. They were expecting them [to not even play] the game.... If they'd done [that], the reaction now would have been completely different.

But just not singing the national anthem was something that might have worked two weeks ago [before they went] to the Islamic Republic president.

They had photos taken with the president.

There are pictures of them bowing in front of the Islamic Republic's president. And that made people really furious, because for weeks now there has been outcry from the people, from the public, saying you have to show solidarity to the victims of brutal oppression and crackdown inside the country.

One of the bowing [players] was … goalkeeper [Alireza] Beiranvand, who got injured from the beginning of the game…. People actually reacted completely opposite of worrying about him. People were saying this is the result of you bowing in front of the Islamic Republic's president.

There's a lot of rage.

Yeah, there is a lot of rage, and I think it's completely justified. At the same time they were in front of the president, there were people getting killed on the streets. There were children getting killed on the streets.

More than a dozen men in suits stand in a semi-circle with a man in long robes holding a soccer shirt with the number 12.
In this photo released by the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi, third left, meets with members of the Iranian national soccer team and sport officials in Tehran. (Iranian Presidency Office/The Associated Press)

What could they have done? If they are summoned to the president's home, do they really have the power to do something?

They could not bow. Bowing is not part of the rituals. You shake hands with these people. But they could have even refused to shake hands, and ...they didn't [even] do that. They actually bowed.

That's really offensive to the people who are getting killed on the streets — the children, the parents of the children, who've been killed around the same time. 

There were two boys, one [nine] years old and 14 years old at that time, who were killed on the streets of Iran. And the parents couldn't even put them in the morgue before burying them because the government steals the corpses of people. They don't want the ceremony, the rituals of burial, to become a protest. So they steal the corpses and they bury them in remote places so the family cannot have the ceremony.

The mother of this 10-year-old kid kept the corpse in her house all night and was looking for ice to keep it cold. This is the time to go to the president of the Islamic Republic and bow? I think people have a really good justification for not supporting them.

A man stands outside holding a red and white flag. In the foreground is a sign with a picture of a young woman and the words: 'Prosecute Raisi for Murder of #Mahsa_Amini September 2022, 16.'
Iranian-Americans and their supporters hold a vigil in Washington, D.C., in support of protestors in Iran. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

What do supporters of the protests ... expect from the team now?

Not to play. Not to be the team of Islamic Republic.

It's as simple as that now in Iran. Especially because of the brutality that we see from the government.

People are fighting for the basics of human rights. And if you cannot make a decision to be on their side at moments like this, I think people have the right to say: You're not our hero. We're not going to support you.

What kind of repercussions might they face back in Iran, though, if they took that step and said, "We're not stepping on the pitch"?

There are a lot of other people, public figures, who took that stand. There is a whole team of female basketball players in Iran. Two days before the start of the World Cup, they took their headscarves off. They don't have the privilege of being the main football players of the national team, and they did that.

A lot of other people — actresses, ordinary people — are taking that risk and [facing] the consequences, because they're fighting for something that matters to everyone.

They have the privilege of, you know, being the national team. There's always eyes on them. And doing anything harsh to them would have had international consequences for Islamic Republic. So their consequence wouldn't have been as harsh as the others. And they ... [weren't] even brave enough to face that.

I just want look ahead to Friday, if we could, Negin. Iran is set to play against Wales. You've said you don't want the team to play. How likely is it that you think that will happen?

[Not playing is] the only way they can come back from this as the heroes. But I don't have that much hope. 

With files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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