DOHA, Qatar (AP) – Iran was rocked by the humiliation on Tuesday of starting the World Cup with a lopsided 6-2 loss to England in a game marred by protests on and off the pitch.
Stubborn Iranian media tried to blame the unrest in the Islamic Republic for the defeat in custody of the country’s vice squad since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on 16 September. Iranian newspapers turned to the familiar tactic of blaming foreign enemiesincluding the United States, Britain and Israel, to foment protests to eject the national team from the game.
“Iran – 2; England, Israel, Saudi and Traitors – 6,” read the headline in the hard-hitting Kayhan daily. The newspaper, whose editor-in-chief will be appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran’s defeat came after “weeks of unfair and unprecedented psychological warfare against the team…of domestic and foreign traitors”. It added that a “political media current” tried to “damage the spirit of the Iranian team by attacking them.”
Iranian fans in the stands on Monday chanted Amini’s name, held signs and wore T-shirts with protest slogans and booed during the national anthem. Many fans seemed divided on whether they should support their national team at all, given the security forces’ crackdown on demonstrations. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests began, according to watchdog Human Rights Activists in Iran. As the game unfolded on Monday, Iranian security forces unleashed heavy gunfire on protesters in a Kurdish town in the west of the country.
Another hardline daily, Vatanemrooz, reported that protesters in Iran celebrated their country’s humiliating defeat in the streets, bursting into cheers in cafes as England scored and honking their horns after the game. Footage from central Tehran circulated online, showing motorcyclists honking their horns and chanting “Six!” for reference England’s six goals against Iran. Authorities have shut down a cafe in the northeastern city of Mashhad after saying it was cheering for England.
“None of the players were mentally ready,” wrote the reform-oriented Iranian daily Shargh.
The nationwide protest movement initially focused on the state-mandated hijab, or headscarf, for women in Iran, but soon turned into calls for the overthrow of Iran’s ruling Shia clerics. During the demonstrations, filmmakers, actors, sports stars and other celebrities have spoken out publicly against the government.
Iran’s national team has come under intense pressure from protesters to show their support ahead of the World Cup. The players faced a barrage of public criticism last week after meeting President Ebrahim Raisi at a farewell ceremony where they remained silent on the issue of protests. Some players were photographed bowing to Raisi.
“So you went to the President, this was the best opportunity to ask him not to kill children and teenagers at least!” Prominent Iranian actor Parviz Parastouei wrote on Instagram.
Before the kick-off against England, the Iranian players did not sing their anthem, standing silently in what appeared to be an act of solidarity. During the game, they did not celebrate the team’s two goals.
Players risk violent backlash if they make even the smallest gesture of protest. State news agency IRNA has sought to promote the team as a patriotic symbol and national unity amid the turmoil, describing the players as “soldiers fighting to uplift their country”.
Some former football stars who have campaigned for the protest movement have been arrested or charged in absentia. Moslem Moein, the head of the paramilitary IRGC’s cyberspace organization, called out four of the most vocal retired players who reportedly turned down invitations to attend the World Cup as government guests.
“England’s strikers failed to score the goals,” he wrote, adding that Iran’s defeat was the work of outspoken former players protesting off the pitch.
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