Football-loving Iranians celebrate as ‘regime’ team goes out of World Cup

Iranian fans allegedly beaten up by other pro-government Iranians in Doha at the World Cup  (Screengrab/Video )
Iranian fans allegedly beaten up by other pro-government Iranians in Doha at the World Cup (Screengrab/Video )

Instead of tears, there were cheers, fireworks, and dancing in the streets.

Iran’s national team lost a tightly fought battle against the United States by 1-0 on Tuesday night, and subsequently crashed out of the World Cup.

But for many Iranians, the defeat was cause for celebration. They were rooting against their own national team, which they view as an instrument of a clerical regime they have been battling in the streets since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini on 16 September.

In Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, fireworks lit up the sky and residents poured onto the streets, honking their horns. In Tehran, the capital, people in multiple districts took to the streets on a chilly night.

“Even though it’s one in the morning, the Islamic Republic has so damaged the people that the football-loving people of Iran are celebrating the defeat of Iran,” says the narrator of one video clip taken of joyous street gatherings.

“It’s really a strange thing. But it’s excellent. The unity of the people is excellent.”

Iranians are generally obsessed with football, and closely follow their local clubs and their national team. For years, women have tried to circumvent the rules that prevent them from entering stadiums to watch matches – a phenomenon that has been the subject of several acclaimed films. Previous victories by the national team, including its historic 1998 World Cup victory over the US, prompted street parades and spontaneous celebrations. But things have changed.

There are also reports that Iranian fans at the Al-Thumama stadium in Doha, where the match against the US took place, had been attacked by supporters of the regime. Some football fans who wore T-shirts with “Woman, Life, Freedom” written on them, in a message of support for the ongoing protests, were allegedly beaten by a group of men. Some reporters claim to have been held by police after photographing such incidents at the stadium.

This comes on the back of claims that Iran collaborated with the authorities in Doha in an attempt to stifle anti-regime protests at the World Cup – a claim denied by Qatar.

Tuesday’s game was covered prominently by Iran’s official media, which lamented the loss in Wednesday’s headlines as a bitter defeat. But the ongoing two-and-half-month-old protest movement that erupted following Amini’s abduction by the morality police has shaken Iran to its core. Society has become intensely polarised between supporters and opponents of the regime.

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Celebrities including leading footballers have publicly spoken out on behalf of the protesters. One star player, Voria Ghafouri, was briefly arrested before being released on bail. Two of Iran’s greatest football legends, Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, have been subjected to death threats for casting their lot with the opposition.

Members of Iran’s national team have refrained from voicing support for the opposition or making public shows of defiance. That has made Team Melli, as it is called in Persian, “Team Mullah” in the eyes of many Iranians.

Iranians hissed when the team met with hardline president Ebrahim Raisi just before departing for Doha. The players’ refusal to sing the national anthem before their first game against England somewhat redeemed them. But they sang along at the match against Wales. A leak of documents that suggested the regime was actively seeking to instrumentalise the team to mobilise supporters and quell opponents brought the team even more infamy.