Iran’s World Cup loss to the United States was met with cheers and celebrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Tuesday night, as protesters hailed the country’s exit from the tournament as a blow to the regime in power.
The nation was knocked out of the tournament in Qatar after losing 1-0 on Tuesday, ending a campaign that has been overshadowed by anti-government protests that have raged for months at home.
But there are concerns about the safety of Iranian players returning home across the Persian Gulf, after the team initially refused to sing Iran’s national anthem ahead of their opener in apparent solidarity with protesters. The families of the team were also threatened with imprisonment and torture ahead of the game, said a source involved in game security.
Residents of several Iranian cities celebrated from inside their homes and apartment buildings moments after the final whistle, which took place in the early hours of local time on Wednesday, while videos posted on social media showed people honking, chanting and whistling.
“I’m happy, it’s the government losing to the people,” a witness to the celebrations in a town in the Kurdish region, which CNN does not name for security reasons, told CNN on Wednesday.
Iranian rights group Hengaw, based in Norway, posted several videos of similar scenes. “The people of Paveh are celebrating the loss of the Iranian national team against America in the World Cup in Qatar, they are chanting ‘Down with Jash (traitors)’,” Hengaw said in a message.
Protests have rocked Iran for several months, triggering a deadly crackdown by the authorities. The nationwide uprising was first sparked by the death of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian who died in mid-September after being arrested by the country’s vice police . Since then, protesters across Iran have coalesced around a series of grievances with the regime.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, said the country was going through a “full-fledged human rights crisis” as authorities cracked down on protests.
Football has become an increasingly heated flashpoint in recent weeks, with the World Cup highlighting the unrest inside the country.
And fans who follow the Qatar team are increasingly conflicted over their support. “Our team was hijacked,” longtime fan Farshad Soheil told CNN. “He no longer represents the Iranian people.”
Soheili said the Iranian regime had succeeded in politicizing and militarizing the team, and criticized the players for not making a more grandiose statement about the protests. “It was a wasted historic opportunity,” Soheili said.
Ahead of Tuesday’s game, many fans said they didn’t want Iran to win. “The reason is not because of the football reason, [but] for political reasons,” another fan called Farshid – who kept his last name hidden for security reasons – told CNN in Doha.
“I have mixed emotions and feelings,” Farshid said. “I am a passionate supporter of Iran but today, unfortunately, I cannot support the national team because of the current situation and the fact that the government is trying to hijack the game and sport and the use as a platform to buy credibility and show that everything is normal (with) what is happening in Iran.
Farshid said many pro-regime fans also attended Iran’s World Cup matches in Doha and created a very tense environment for other Iranian fans by trying to interfere with their media interviews.
The Iranian national team would have reached the second round of the World Cup with a win or draw against the United States, but the team will now return home after exiting the group stage.
“I’m really sorry on behalf of our players, our group, that we couldn’t qualify for the next round,” midfielder Saeid Ezatolah told reporters after the match. “I hope our fans and our people in Iran will forgive us. And I just feel sorry, that’s all.
The team’s return will be closely watched amid fears the players could be punished for a brief show of support for the protests, which drew international attention and praise from human rights groups.
The country’s flag and national anthem have been dismissed by protesters as symbols of the current regime. And, following the Iranian players’ refusal to sing the Iranian national anthem in their opening game against England on Nov. 21, a source involved in match security told CNN the players were called to a meeting with members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC).
The source said they were told their families would be exposed to “violence and torture” if they did not sing the national anthem or join a political protest against the regime in Tehran.
The players sang the anthem on Tuesday, and ahead of their second game against Wales last Friday, which saw Iran win 2-0.
Hours before the match kicked off on Tuesday, Iranian authorities said a former member of the national football team, Parviz Boroumand – who was arrested this month for criticizing the government – had released on bail, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Boroumand had been arrested in mid-November during protests in Tehran, Iranian media reported. Earlier on Tuesday, Iranian-Kurdish footballer Voria Ghafouri was also released on bail.
Iranian soccer legend Ali Karimi, sometimes dubbed the “Asian Maradona”, has meanwhile said he received death threats through family members after vocally supporting the protests.
The government described him as one of the ‘key leaders’ of the protests and issued an arrest warrant for him in early October, accusing him of ‘harmonizing with the enemy’ and ‘encouraging riots’. “, according to Iran’s Supreme Judicial Council. , two counts carrying the death penalty.
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