It’s two weeks since Lionel Messi lifted the World Cup and a month since Iran – aka Team Melli – left Qatar after losing to the USA in their final group match.
In the context of the continuing disaster in Iranian society and politics, the World Cup is an irrelevance. In the minds of so many of our people who have been railing against an oppressive government, it was also a missed opportunity.
The tragic death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on 16 September turned Iranian politics upside down. We have been a country in revolt since. A widespread view here was that if our footballers wouldn’t support social change on the biggest stage, even with the risk that entailed, then we can’t support them.
Iran’s national football team chose not to make significant protests at the World Cup in Qatar
Hundreds of Iranians have been killed for protesting in support of their basic human rights
Lots of people here feel our national team let them down, showing no outward empathy with protestors here beyond refusing to sing the national anthem before the opening match.
Among Iranian fans in Qatar, according to some who were there, was an ominous contingent of Iranian government officials. Qatar’s tough restrictions on fans making political demonstrations also made it harder for Iranian supporters to voice dissent.
The players had a global stage to speak out and didn’t take that chance.
Of course it takes bravery to face down your government but watching from here the players acted as usual; goal celebrations disappointed many. When Team Melli returned to Tehran there was a surprising welcome, by a crowd that seemed to have been unnaturally assembled by the government.
Mahsa Amini died in hospital in September under suspicious circumstances after failing to comply to Iran’s mandatory hijab law
Ordinary Iranians, not least many women and young people fighting for basic rights, have been killed in their scores for protesting for those rights. The Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) says more than 508 have been killed by the authorities. Even the Iranian government accept the number is higher than 200.
HRANA also warns that 60 to 100 prisoners are at risk of execution, simply for speaking out against the regime. Amir Nasr Azadani, 26, a former player in the Iranian Pro League is one of them, sentenced to death.
Since the Iran squad got back, they have remained silent. They don’t talk about anything outside of Team Melli and what happened in the matches. They are being criticised for receiving bonuses, such as an official licence to import luxury cars to the country, while being silent about their fellow citizens.
Our domestic league resumed a few days after the World Cup. Games are still being played in empty stadiums, even the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Perspolis. If there are no fans, there can be no protests. This is the logic of our regime.
Before closing the stadiums, Iran was under pressure from FIFA to let women in as spectators. This remains a challenge. And what are FIFA doing?
The authorities’ desire continue suppressing dissent was most visible in recent days as our greatest ever player, Ali Daei, again appeared to be targeted. The former striker complained about the government after Asra Panahi, a 15-year-old girl from his home town of Ardabil, was killed in October.
The Iranian football team celebrate after scoring their first goal of the World Cup against Wales
She had refused to take part in a pro-government rally and was among a group of classmates beaten up by Iran’s security services for doing so. She died of her injuries.
Just a few weeks ago, Ali Daei again supported the protestors – and this led to the government shutting down a restaurant and a jewellery store he owns.
This apparent harassment continued last week when a plane to Dubai carrying his wife and daughter was forced to land on Kish Island in the Persian gulf, to prevent them leaving the country. They are fine. Ali Daei later said: ‘Thank God they are healthy and I have them next to me.’
There are conflicting reports over precisely what happened and why, although the consensus is the family were targeted for Ali Daei supporting the protests. The airline said they were told to land by official edict.
Ali Daei – widely considered Iran’s greatest ever player – pictured with his wife and child
One news agency said Ali Daei’s family were banned from leaving the country for contributing to what they called ‘disturbance’. But the official news agency of the Islamic Republic of Iran rejected this claim, saying there was no restriction imposed on them.
Ali Daei’s family can’t leave Iran, but it’s not clear if he would be free to do so. There is no news on when his businesses might be allowed to reopen. But one prominent and senior extremist supporter of the regime, Hamid Rasaei, has been publicly calling for Ali Daei to be ‘slapped’, the meaning being punished or beaten.
The orchestrated nature of the intimidation was also highlighted when government-controlled Channel 3 aired a negative documentary about another former Iran player, Ali Karimi, a vocal supporter of the protests who now lives in North America.
Amid this crackdown, protests have diminished and protesters’ voices are mostly heard as we watch videos of the burials of people killed for protesting. The government meanwhile is busy scheduling court dates to sentence more protestors, including to death.
An Iranian TV channel broadcasting from London has recently claimed that FIFA have asked the Iranian Football Federation for news about Amir Nasr Azadani.
Will that help? Will governments like that in the United Kingdom, support our people and put more pressure on the Iranian government?
Or now the World Cup is over, has the world moved on?