“I was watching history. I was so honored to be able to be in Iran for the last two months and be able to watch, firsthand, the bravery of the young Iranian women activists.”
Maryam Shojaei, the sister of former captain Masoud Shojaei and an activist who founded the Open Stadiums movement which promotes Iranian women’s rights to attend sports events in the country, should have been in Qatar following the national team as they exited the tournament in the group stage against the US.
The connection between Maryam and the Iranian people to its national team runs deep. Following the 1979 revolution which heralded a new era under a strict authoritarian regime, the side was seen by people as a conduit of being able to show the world how normal the citizens were compared with how they were portrayed in the media.
But what should have been a period of joy and celebration during this World Cup in Qatar has been a complex period for those in Iran, following the death of 22-year-old Jina Mahsa Amini in September, with protests against the government having spread across the country.
Many protestors have been disappointed with their beloved Team Melli’s decision not to be more vocal in their support for the people against the government and turned on the national team.
‘More important than football’
“There is something more important than football going on inside of Iran,” Shojaei told DW. “We expected whoever has the world stage to use their voice to amplify all of our voices.
“It’s understandable that the players are under tremendous pressure at this time but so are the people in Iran, who are losing their lives.
“Of course, you might still want to see your team win. Deep down I really wanted and wished for them to win. Even with the national anthem being boycotted, when you’ve heard it since childhood it means something, even if you don’t agree with the words.
“On the other hand there many people who are suffering, some people who have turned their backs on the government and some are on the streets.
“I don’t know where or how these young girls have they learned to be so courageous and brave. They are amazing.
“That is why there is demand from the population to the athletes because they see how brave these young teenagers are and they want more from our athletes.”
‘An opportunity for Iran’
Along with the internal conflicts for many over whether or not to support the team or travel to Qatar, there has been pressure within Iranian communities outside of the country not to travel to the World Cup for fear of being seen to support the government.
For Maryam, although the worldwide interest the tournament brings which has ensured the protests have remained in the news, the location of the competition is a big concern for her.
“As a friend told me told me, the World Cup provides an opportunity for Iran as a nation to be seen at this critical moment,” she explained.
“But I’m worried it’s happening in the worse place possible. I wish the World Cup was taking place in a free country where Iranians who are there would have been able to express themselves fully.
“Qatar’s security forces co-operate with the Iranians in trying to suppress any signs of the protests and ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ t-shirts. The timing is good, the place is not.
“I know people who cancelled their trip (to Qatar) because they feel guilty. For us football is something that is celebratory even when we don’t win, so being part of the celebratory thing at this moment doesn’t feel good for most of the Iranians.”
‘The team have immunity’
While other Iranian athletes and sporting bodies were quick to criticize the government, the football team met with President Ebrahim Raisi before leaving for Qatar, much to the ire of the public.
Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi used his first press conference of the competition, ahead of his side’s match opening game against England, to give his support to protesters and the team subsequentlychose not to sign the national anthem before the clash with England.
It bought the team only a little bit of goodwill as their decision to sign the national anthem before their Group B fixtures against Wales saw them booed by their own fans in the stadium.
“I wasn’t surprised when they were silent because in other sports the athletes have done the same but I was surprised when they sang again ahead of the second match,” explained Shojaei.
“Despite that pressure the team have immunity compared with ordinary people. If it had been me, I would have found a way to send the Iranian people’s message across the world.
“I think these brave people, in particular the women, deserve to be heard. Watching those young girls be so opinionated and so brave, it was something that gives me so much hope and energy.”
Whether the fractured relationship between the once beloved Team Melli and the Iranian people can be healed may well depend on whether the protestors get freedom from the government. They have shown they are not afraid to fight.
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