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The soccer world must protect Iran’s team

AS THE REF blew the final whistle at Doha’s Al Thamama Stadium to confirm their 0-1 loss to the US, several members of the Iranian team were seen bursting into tears. In an especially poignant moment, defender Ramin Rezaeian, who had run himself into the ground over 100 grueling minutes, was consoled by Antonee Robinson, who had lined up opposite him on the American side.

It is not unusual for defeated players to weep in frustration, especially after a game so heavily freighted with historical and geopolitical import. For Team Melli, as the Iranian national soccer squad is known, there was the additional heartbreak of being eliminated from the World Cup.   

But for the Iranians, the grief would have been mingled with impending dread. Two weeks ago, they faced the prospect of being damned if they didn’t participate in the tournament and damned if they did, respectively by the regime in Tehran and the anti-regime protest movement. Now, they head home to damnation from both sides.

In scenes that would have been unthinkable before the protest movement erupted in the early fall, many Iranians cheered the American victory. In the eyes of the protesters, Team Melli represented the regime rather than the nation. This view was cemented when members of the squad participated in a photo-op with President Ebrahim Raisi before the tournament, even as other athletes were showing solidarity with the protests, at great personal risk.

Stung by chants of “Team Mullah” by anti-regime demonstrators, the players tried to signal their support for the protests by pointedly refusing to sing the national anthem before their first game, a 2-6 loss to England. This earned them the wrath of the Islamic Republic, from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on down. Threatened with imprisonment and torture if they failed to “behave,” they gave half-hearted renditions ahead of their 2-0 win against Wales and their loss to the US.

The protesters remain skeptical of the players’ loyalties, though. The celebration of their defeat suggests Team Melli remains Team Mullah to those who have been braving the batons and bullets of Khamenei’s security forces for over two months.

Having failed to redeem themselves in the eyes of the protesters, the players must now face the wrath of the regime, which is unlikely to forgive or forget their demurral over the anthem — the more embarrassing to the Islamic Republic for having taken place on the world’s largest stage. Victory against the US, the “Great Satan” of the Islamic Republic’s official demonology, might have earned the team some leniency from Khamenei and his kind. But since the regime is unable to make any propaganda hay from the World Cup, it will be tempted instead to make an example of the players for their defiance.

Retribution is unlikely to stop with the team’s captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, who spoke out for the protesters after the game against England. “We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” he said. “We are here but it does not mean we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.”

Hajsafi and his squad now risk joining the scores of prominent figures — athletes, movie stars and other celebrities — who are themselves among the thousands of Iranians jailed for supporting or participating in the protests. Many have been brutally tortured and face the death sentence for challenging the theocratic state.

Team Melli’s best hope of escaping that fate may lie in the very thing that embarrassed the regime: the glare of global attention. After all, two former players who had previously been arrested were released on the eve of the game against the US, evidently in response to international condemnation.

The danger is that the soccer world, like the US team, will move on to the next phase of the World Cup and forget about Team Melli. It falls to FIFA, the sport’s governing body, to keep a wary eye on how Tehran treats the returning players. To paraphrase Hajsafi, the Iranians may no longer be at the World Cup, but that does not mean FIFA should not be their voice.

It should issue a preemptive warning of harsh consequences for any mistreatment — the threat of being expelled from all international competition would carry considerable weight in a country where officials and civilians alike are mad for soccer. FIFA should also enjoin Qatar, the tournament’s hosts and one of few countries that enjoys good relations with the Islamic Republic, to use its diplomatic leverage in aid of the players.

The wider soccer world has a role to play. Ahead of the tournament, many European teams used their participation in the tournament to draw attention to the poor treatment of migrant workers in Qatar and demand better working conditions. They also condemned Qatar’s retrogressive views about the LGBTQ+ community.

FIFA and other soccer officials frowned on all this, on the grounds that it had nothing to do with soccer. Whatever the merits of that argument, it certainly doesn’t hold in the case of the Iranian team’s welfare.

Antonee Robinson showed the way by consoling Ramin Rezaeian in his sorrow. The soccer world should be Team Melli’s shield against the regime’s spiteful vengeance.


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