Iranian team steps back protest, sings anthem before World Cup win over Wales
Players had previously shown support for protests against country's regime
Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.
In a men's World Cup rife with political and cultural tensions, the Iranian national team stepped back from its defiance of its country's regime by singing the anthem before Friday's game against Wales.
The Iranian players had made headlines when they stood in silence, their faces impassive, during their anthem before their opening match in Qatar, a 6-2 loss to England on Monday.
After the Welsh belted out Land of My Fathers at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on a scorching afternoon in Doha, nearly all the Iranian players sang their anthem, albeit less enthusiastically. Some of their lips barely moved.
The crowd, which had greeted the team with an ovation when they came out for their warmups, responded with a loud mix of cheers and whistles throughout. Big screens at the stadium showed Iranian supporters openly weeping during and after the rendition.
There have been ongoing demonstrations in Iran following the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, in September. She was arrested by morality police for allegedly violating Iran's strict dress rules.
According to the United Nations, at least 14,000 protestors have been arrested since.
The Iranian team had already navigated a controversial leadup to the tournament. A proposed June friendly against Canada in Vancouver was cancelled after widespread condemnation.
Ukraine later asked for Iran to be banned from the World Cup for supplying missiles and other weaponry to Russia. FIFA, the sport's governing body, declined the request.
Some domestic critics also wanted the Iranian players to self-exile from Qatar.
The team, which had previously worn black jackets over their uniforms before a pre-tournament exhibition against Senegal, has tried to find a middle ground, taking the field while also letting it be known that their hearts are at home.
"Before anything else, I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran," captain Ehsan Hajsafi said at the team's opening press conference in Doha. "They should know that we are with them, we support them, and we sympathize with them."
Mehdi Taremi, who scored both goals for Iran in its opening defeat, told reporters that the players had not been threatened by authorities after the England game, and would make up their own minds whether to sing before the game against Wales.
"I don't like to talk about political issues, but we are not under any pressure," Taremi said. "We came to play football, not just us but all of the players here in Qatar."
Iran's dramatic 2-0 win over Wales — Rouzbeh Cheshmi scored in the final minutes of added time before Ramin Rezaeian chipped home one more for good measure — might provide the team some political cover, as well as even greater profile.
The Iranians will play their final group-stage game against the Americans on Nov. 29. A place in the knockout rounds will be on the line.
The stakes for them were already remarkably high. Government loyalists vilified the team for not singing the anthem before the England game, leading to speculation that the players might be arrested upon their return. Two of Friday's starters play in the Iranian domestic league and find themselves in an especially difficult position.
"We will never allow anyone to insult our anthem and flag," Mehdi Chamran, the conservative chairman of Tehran city council, said.
The concern over reprisals recalled the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when there were fears the North Korean team, which lost all three of its group-stage games, including a 7-0 defeat to Portugal, would be punished for its performance on the international stage.
Iranian media reported that one former national team player, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested on Thursday after a training session with his professional club for spreading "propaganda" against the government.
Ghafouri, who is of Kurdish origin, last played for Iran in 2019.