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Iranians protest on and off the pitch ahead of World Cup

September 28, 2022

A football friendly to prepare for Qatar 2022 proved fertile grounds for Iranian protesters. The national team have now lent their support in the fight for the freedom of women in a country with a hard-line government.

Iranian protesters in Austria
Iranian women held up placards in protest against the killing of Mahsa Amini as Iran took on Senegal in an international football friendlyImage: Lolade Adewuyi

"Say her name! Say her name!" screamed Iranian protesters outside the BSFZ Arena as their national football team prepared to play against Senegal in an international friendly on Tuesday.

The protesters rallying against the death of Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in Tehran on September 13 after being arrested by the morality police for not wearing the Hijab, the head covering mandated by the Iranian religious authorities. The protests have spread all over the country with reports suggesting that more than 70 Iranians have lost their lives in their fight for equality for women in the country.

This football match played in front of a small crowd, in a small stadium 25 kilometers from the Austrian capital of Vienna carried the weight of political significance. "We are here to beg the players to please support us. You're supporting the dictators by playing for them. Please support us because they are killing our young people on the streets," Mehran Mostaed, 39, a Vienna resident said.

Iranian protesters in Austria
Protesters demanded that the footballers speak out against the Iranian regimeImage: Lolade Adewuyi

Footballers join protests

And the players did show their support in their own way. They wore black jackets to cover their national team logos when the national anthem was performed. And when Bayer Leverkusen star Sardar Azmoun scored the equalizer for Iran in a game that ended 1-1, he did not celebrate in honour of the protesters across the country. Iran were muted as they walked back to the middle of the pitch for the game to restart.

Despite the players being asked to remain apolitical, Azmoun produced a post on his Instagram story that he has since deleted.

"The ultimate [punishment] is to be kicked out of the national team, which is a small price to pay for even a single strand of Iranian women's hair. Shame on you for easily killing the people and viva women of Iran. Long live Iranian women!," he wrote.

Over the course of the week, several members of the Iran squad had posted blacked out images on social media in support of the protesters. It raises the question whether they are now at risk of being dropped from Iran head coach Carlos Quieroz's World Cup squad?

Support from football legends

Other Iranian football voices have spoken out in support of the protests against the Iranian regime. Former Bayern Munich player Ali Karimi and Iran legend Ali Daei have also taken to social media to lend their voice to the ongoing protests.

Karimi sent a message to Iran's army not to be used to kill their compatriots. "A homeland is waiting for you. Do not let innocent blood be shed," wrote Karimi, who has faced calls from pro-regime supporters to be arrested.

Iran team huddle
Iran played against Senegal in AustriaImage: Lolade Adewuyi

Daei, who played 149 times in an illustrious career for Iran and scored 109 goals, sent a message to the regime: "Instead of repression, violence and arresting the Iranian people, solve their problems."

A symbol for women

In Iran, women are denied certain freedoms that include not being able to enter football stadiums to watch matches involving men. About 500 women were allowed to watch a select domestic league game last month, but on Tuesday night Sara Telek, an Austrian referee, who officiated at the UEFA Women's Euro 2022, provided a beacon of hope in her role as assistant referee.

As the game was broadcast live in Iran, it was possible for her to be seen on TV screens by millions of Iranians and by the Iranian regime. And they could do nothing to stop a woman, without a Hijab and wearing shorts with her knees bare, from doing her job.

Referee Sara Telek
Sara Telek on the sidelines during the game between Iran and SenegalImage: Lolade Adewuyi

A member of the organizing team for the match told DW that the decision to have Telek in the game was made by UEFA who oversee referee arrangements for international friendly matches. He said that the Iranian delegation had made no objection. "This is Austria, we organized the game according to Austrian laws," he told DW.

The significance of Telek's image being broadcast on Iranian TV for such an important game was emphasized by an Iranian journalist from the independent Iran International TV, who wished not to be named when talking to DW: "The laws in Iran must change. Women must have the same rights as men."

Iran's World Cup a platform for protests?

With the World Cup less than two months away, Iran will need to focus on doing well at the tournament that will be played in the Gulf for the first time. Good preparations could see them make use of the advantage of being close to home to finally reach the knockout stages, at the sixth attempt.

But with protests on and off the field ongoing, there's an extra ball to juggle for head coach Queiroz who was recently re-hired to manage the team. Under the Portuguese, the Iranians have looked solid during the international break as they defeated Uruguay 1-0 before the draw against African champions, Senegal.

Iran | Carlos Queiroz, Cheftrainer der iranischen Fussballmannschaft
Carlos Queiroz took over the Iran job in SeptemberImage: Ffiri/ZUMA/IMAGO

In Qatar they will face the United States, Wales and England, whose coach Gareth Southgate was spotted scouting his Group B opponents on Tuesday. 

While there were no media appearances on the night from the national team, Iran's players won't have been able to escape the voices that sang outside the stadium all game long calling for freedom for the women of Iran. After all these players have mothers, sisters and daughters who are shackled by the hard line of the regime at home. 

Edited by: James Thorogood