In Iran’s three matches during the World Cup in Qatar, several of its fans showed the shirt of their National Team. But it was not that of Mehdi Taremi, his star, Porto striker, nor that of Ehsan Hajsafi, his captain. Nor was it about the triumph of sports brands that have achieved something unthinkable a decade ago: that people of any age wear their team’s shirts anywhere and much more so on the courts. The one they showed, unfolded so that the number 22 bib could be seen, bore the name of Mahsa Amini. Mahsa was a 22-year-old girl who in September of this year was arrested along with her family on the streets of Tehran by the Moral Police. They accused her of not being dressed as the rules indicate: her hijab was poorly placed. The policemen beat them into the vehicle that would take them to the place of detention. On the way they continued to beat them. Mahsa was hit with a truncheon on the back of the head. She lost consciousness. Iranian officials mocked her and accused her of overreacting. She was denied medical attention for hours despite the pleas of her relatives. The damage was irreversible. After three days in a coma, she declared herself dead. The young woman became a symbol of the fight for freedoms in the Asian country and sparked a protest movement that was escalating. And that she also made it to the World Cup.
The first game the Iranian players did not sing the anthem of their country. It was his way of accompanying the protests. Captain Hajsafi testified in favor of the protesters and called for freedoms. He said that “the situation is not good and people are not happy.” And, without mentioning the government, he made it clear that they would play for the Iranian people. He also expressed his condolences to the relatives of the repression and told them that “I was on his side.”. That day the team was thrashed by England. Before the second game, the team sang the anthem pressured (and threatened) by the Iranian regime. The public whistled them.
During that game, as in the first, there were exiled Iranians who displayed the 22 shirt with the name of Mahsa. They also had their nails painted white, green and red with the slogan: Women, Life and Liberty (the slogan of the protests in their country). But they did not last long in the stands. Iranian fans -in all meanings of the term-, supposedly sent by his government, surrounded them, stole their shirts and pushed them out of the stadium. Nobody did anything to stop it. The attackers remained in Qatar until the end of Iranian involvement. FIFA did not veto their entry into the third game when there was no longer any doubt that they were not going to support their team but rather functioned as goalkeepers for the regime. Throughout the tournament, when they were not the ones who snatched the flags with slogans protesting against the Islamic Republic or asking for the rights of women in their land, they made sure that stadium security did so.
The third match of the Asian team also caused controversy. It was a geopolitical confrontation: Iran – United States. The winner also got a pass to the next round.
The defeat prevented them from going to the next phase, with the aggravating circumstance of having been defeated by their greatest enemy in the West. However, through the streets of Tehran there were horns, whistles, some fireworks and several blew their vuvuzelas celebrating not only the defeat of the soccer team but also the fact that Ali Khamenei’s regime could not enjoy the sporting victory. The street demonstrations celebrating the victory against Wales in the second game had upset many and inflamed the authoritarian government. In the streets, after the defeat against the United States, the cry of “Death to the dictator” was heard. There was also repression by the official forces and at least two motorists who honked their horns to celebrate the defeat were killed by police bullets.
One of them was mehran samak, 27 years old. Samak had been a childhood friend of Saeied Ezatolahi, a member of the Iranian squad in the World Cup, one of those defeated on the playing field. Ezatolahi remembered his friend on social networks and expressed his pain. And he wrote on Instagram: “This is not what our youth deserve. This is not what our Nation deserves.”
During that third match, Iranian shock troops and Qatari stadium security members attacked the protesters who were chanting the slogan Women, Life and Liberty or brandishing Amini’s T-shirt. Protests from various international organizations multiplied. Given the increase in pressure and the dissemination of videos showing the repression inside the stadiums, FIFA allowed the flags with the motto and the Iranian shirts with the number 22 and the name of the murdered girl for the following matches. The not least detail is that at that point in the tournament the Iranian team was already eliminated.
FIFA has always been reluctant to speak out against authoritarian governments. The catchphrase that its different presidents have repeated for decades is that Politics and sport should not be mixed. It is no longer a fallacy but a simple lie.
Politics is one of the facets, one of the dimensions, of modern professional sport. Just as the World Cups are a sporting event, they are also, at the same time, an event of economic relevance, a political event and a sociological phenomenon, among other things. Each of these dimensions intersects and overlaps in an inseparable way.
What the FIFA authorities have always avoided are pronouncements against government actions, pronouncements that could complicate their future business.. FIFA never stopped interacting and politically maneuvering with governments of different legitimacy of origin and exercise. But that, of course, is not a new phenomenon. Examples abound. The most obvious are the 1934 World Cup in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, the 1938 World Cup that was to be held in South America and was brought to France by Jules Rimet due to the proximity of World War II, the 1978 World Cup played under the Argentine military dictatorship. .
FIFA from its statutes prohibits the interference of political power in its powers. But many times that is just an empty statement. In practice, the different governments interfere. And, of course, FIFA negotiates and partners with them in different ways.
At the beginning of the tournament Neuer, the goalkeeper from Germany, was forbidden to wear a captain’s band with the rainbow flag that it was an implicit protest against the persecution of homosexuality by the Qatari government and the way in which the rights of the LGTB+ community are curtailed. The German players settled the discussion by covering their mouths in the official photo before the first game. They did not repeat the gesture in the following ones: the organization called them to order and many of their compatriots reproached them and blamed that small gesture for the defeat against Japan.
Before the start of the World Cup, the usual thing happened. Attention focused on Qatar. The leaders of the countries wish to organize these great sporting events with the illusion of improve your image international. But they almost never make it. What they get is to put a giant magnifying glass on the problems and inequities of their country and make them known to those who would never have paid attention to that nation, unless it becomes the venue for a World Cup.
In 1962, with a lot of effort, Chile organized the seventh World Cup. “As we have nothing, we will do everything” had said Carlos Dittborn, the president of the organizing committee. The special Italian envoys to the contest wrote unfavorable chronicles about the economic and social situation of the country. This caused the climate of chauvinism to grow and when Italy and Chile faced each other in a decisive instance, the match turned into a massacre: The Battle of Santiago was called.
Something similar happened to the Argentine military in 1978.. They longed to give the world an image of prosperity, of a land of peace. What they achieved was that everywhere they paid attention to the Argentine Case, which up to that moment had not been widely publicized in the European and North American press (in the United States it was key, when months later, the Timerman Case became known). For this, the boycott committees that were formed in different European countries were fundamental, and they did not manage to stop any team or player from participating in the World Cup. But their achievement was greater: they effectively and massively disseminated what was happening in Argentina. As a result of the 78 World Cup, the violations of human rights and their brutal magnitude became known throughout the world. It was also the occasion in which the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo obtained international relevance for the first time.
Something similar happened in Qatar. The world fixed its eyes on the small oil country and learned about its lack of freedoms, the autocratic regime, the persecution of homosexuals, the mistreatment of the workers who built the stadiums and the lack of security measures at work that caused many deaths. .
It talks about sportswashing, of using a World Cup or an Olympic Games to improve the image of a country, to favor the position of a government, to cover up its real problems. But it almost never happens. In general, what football achieves with its power is to put a great reflector on everything it touches, expose everything that comes close to it and multiply the attention.
The other side of this phenomenon is that as soon as the first game begins, as soon as the ball is put into play, everything else seems secondary. The protests are silenced, the discomfort due to inequities is stilled, the interest in what is not football dissipates. And we all follow the parties and the different defining instances forgetting the other issues.
The Iranian regime a few days ago executed an opponent. It was a shocking public act due to its barbarity. The images were disseminated to achieve the desired disciplinary effect on its population. A man hanging in the air, lifeless, wobbling from the top of a huge crane.
In these days other death sentences were known. One of those sentenced to the gallows is Amir Nazr-Azadani, a 26-year-old soccer player. He was accused of having committed the crime of Moharebeh, whose translation is to have incurred “enmity with God.” A Moharebeh is an enemy of God. Amir had participated in the demonstrations that took place in recent months for women’s rights after the death of Mahsa Amini. His crime was being in the opposition, trying to make his voice heard. After the international protests, the Iranian government argued that the soccer player had participated in an action that ended with the death of three agents of the Iranian security forces: not one of the evidence used is known and the process was far from normal and Give the defendant a chance to defend himself. In these months the repression of the protests has caused around 500 deaths and thousands of arrests. The Iranian regime has gone a step further in recent weeks: it has begun public executions. Amir Nazr-Azadani is one of those waiting on the gallows.
Several legends of the sport raised their voices. A change.org was opened that has already gathered thousands of signatures to oppose his execution. But with the great event of soccer in the final instances, with all the world attention on them, a great gesture is required from FIFA, a definitive condemnation action with sanctions included. This is not the time to look the other way.
Because silence and indifference become complicity. He is not the first Iranian player sentenced to death. Iran’s first World Cup participation was in 1978. In Argentina they drew one game and lost two others. The squad was missing a player who at some point in the qualifiers had been the team captain: Habib Khabiri. Some time later, in 1984, his past as captain of the national team did not save Khabibi. He was brutally tortured and later publicly executed for opposing the regime. He was 29 years old.
In the eighth minute of each game of this World Cup, the Iranian dissidents scattered in the Qatari stadiums chanted with fervor. The oficialistas, the fanatics commanded by the current government, tried to silence them with nationalist chants. The protesters remembered Ali Karimi, the great Iranian soccer star of the past decade.
Karimi was once called the Maradona of Asia. He came to play for Bayern Munich and scored 38 goals for his team. Karimi was convicted in absentia by the Iranian authorities. His crime was to support the protests that took place in the streets of the country after the death of Mahsa Amini and to demand freedom for his compatriots. Karimi lives in Dubai. There he was granted special custody due to the death threats he received after his protests.
Karimi did what FIFA did not. He took advantage of his fame to make the situation in Iran known, to propagate human rights violations, persecutions, state crimes.
The international attention and outrage generated by the death sentence of Amir Nazr-Azadani was multiplied by his past as a footballer. Soccer has that propagating power that FIFA should take advantage of, in addition to organizing that global party that is a World Cup, to try to ensure that these state crimes receive the sentences they deserve. An official statement by the agency and sanctions on the offending country could have an effect on the Iranian population that other measures would not.
But FIFA on these occasions prefers to remain silent and look away. The silence is ominous. He prefers to pay attention to the intensity of the players’ complaints to the actions of the referees. In those cases, only in those cases, it is severe.
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