The departing crowd, giddy from Iran’s improbable, last-minute victory over Wales, gathered around her, trying to negotiate an end to the standoff. Then, Iranian fans began to chant in Farsi: “Leave her, leave her.” The police, surrounded and looking nervous, relented, letting the woman back into the stadium grounds.
The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement back home targeting its clerical leadership, and the tensions, inescapable and persistent, are spilling onto the field.
Iran arrests soccer’s Voria Ghafouri amid scrutiny of World Cup team
So far, in Iran’s first two matches, fans have held signs or waved banners in support of the protests. Arguments have broken out between pro- and anti-government supporters in the stadium and its surroundings. The displays have laid bare the depth of Iran’s malaise and alarmed the Qatari hosts, who said before the tournament that one of their biggest fears was that the political conflicts in the region could play out during the tournament.
The protests in Iran started 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 groups say.
Members of Iran’s national team are in a vise, called upon by the protest movement to speak out against a government that brooks no 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 match in Qatar, against England, declining to sing the national anthem in what was widely seen as a show of support for the protest movement. On Friday, though, team members elected to sing, as whistles and boos echoed around Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.
Before the match against Wales, a few supporters of the Iranian team said that while they were happy at the team’s earlier refusal to sing, they worried that the players were facing an inordinate amount of 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 match with his brother, who lives in the United States. “I don’t think we should be throwing hate and shame at the players,” added the man, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relatives in Iran.
“They are young guys, here to play football,” his brother said.
There were signs Friday of a more determined effort to silence the political protest, such as the removal of the woman wearing the protest T-shirt. A witness said that the police approached another Iranian supporter who had put black tape on the Iranian flag, as well as her mouth, and made her remove them.
Photos showed a police officer confronting another woman who held an Amini T-shirt and wore makeup that approximated blood streaming from her eyes.
It was not clear whether there was a directive from FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to suppress political displays, or from Qatari authorities, but the policy appeared unevenly enforced. Allen Shahipour, who wore a homemade “Woman, Life, Freedom” T-shirt, said he was allowed inside. So was a 34-year-old named Peari, from Isfahan in Iran, who wore a silk-screened button-down shirt with an artistic tribute to Amini.
“We are so happy” with Iran’s win Friday, she said. But to 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 about Friday’s game, including the whistling during the anthem. “The government doesn’t hear us.”
Attendees widely suspected that Iranian officials were present at the match. “They are inside. They are outside. They look like spectators. They look like you. They look like me,” said a 43-year-old man from Tehran, wearing an Iran jersey as he left the stadium with a childhood friend.
For the two of them, the victory and the accompanying euphoria were a welcome distraction from whatever was going on back home. “We needed this win,” said the man with the jersey. His friend said the win was “complicated,” but he agreed.
After the England match, which Iran lost 6-2, the friend had chain-smoked cigarettes — not because of the loss, he said, but because of all the tension in the air. “It’s getting better,” he said.
The loss prompted Iran’s coach, Carlos Queiroz, to chide the fans for criticizing the team, for the pressure he said they had placed on his players. He “asked people to support Iran,” said Mac Taba, 33. At the stadium Friday, through all the noise, the fans had done just that, he said.
Besides, “we needed to get a win,” he said.