Usually, when a team is knocked out of an international tournament like the FIFA World Cup, the nation is united in grief, pride in their performance, or a mixture of both. However, after Iran’s loss to the United States on Tuesday, many Iranians applauded their players’ failure, saying they represented the repressive theocratic regime rather than the people it violently oppresses.
On Tuesday, those who criticized the team made their voices heard: it was the loss of the Islamic Republic, not that of Iran. Honking cars flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities, according to footage posted on social media.
In one of the videos, which was released after the game, the man who filmed said that those who honked their horns in the capital’s Pirouzi Street expressed “the joy of the people because of the defeat”.
Meanwhile, there were thousands of tweets in Persian or English from prominent Iranians saying how happy they were that their own team fell at the first hurdle of the competition.
Iranian players react after losing 1-0 to the United States on Tuesday. Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
“For 43 years the regime has been brainwashing Iranians to hate America,” tweeted New York-based Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad. “But see how Iranians celebrate the victory of the American football team against the Islamic Republic.”
Dissident Iranian rapper Soroush Lashkari, better known by his stage name Hichkas (translation: nobody) wrote that videos of Iranians celebrating the defeat of the Islamic Republic teams against the American team are all over the internet.
He said that real Iranians do not consider the regime terrorist, which means that the country’s government is Iranian.
Thus, Iran’s short-lived stint at the World Cup was fraught with complex issues of loyalty and national identity. Should the country’s 85 million people support a team calling itself the Islamic Republic of Iran that is using brutal tactics to crush protests that have been raging for more than two months?
The debate even played out in Qatar’s billion-dollar stadiums during Iran’s three games, with supporters supporting the regime trying to drown out supporters who criticized it.
Shortly after the US game, scuffles broke out between Iranian protesters holding up portraits of outspoken former footballer Ali Karimi, an icon of the protest movement, and a journalist from Iranian state media who was trying to film them, the Associated Press reported.
Two London-based Iranians wearing T-shirts with the protest slogan were repeatedly harassed as they spoke to an AP reporter before the game.
After the game, some of the American players hugged their Iranian counterparts, who were in tears after the loss.
The protests began after a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, died in a hospital three days after she was arrested in September by the country’s vice police for allegedly breaking the country’s strict dress codes.
Protests for women’s rights grew into a larger and more diverse movement. Some protesters called for the overthrow of the regime and the death of the dictator i.e. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Security guards at the World Cup stadium pin down an Iranian man wearing a protest t-shirt in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday. Reuters Television
The place of the Iranian soccer team in all of this has been the subject of debate among Iranians and those watching from abroad.
For some critics of the government, the players were in an impossible position, with any show of dissent against the regime carrying the risk of reprisals against their family members back home. And even so, the players exceptionally did not sing the national anthem ahead of their first game against England, and their captain, Ehsan Hajsafi, spoke in sympathy for those who died in the protests.
Others said players have not done enough to use their platform to speak out against violence and subjugation at home. They also pointed to a pre-tournament meeting in which some of the players bowed to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
While prominent members of the Iranian diaspora feel able to criticize the regime under their own names online, many dissidents will do so only anonymously for fear of reprisals.
One user, posting under an anonymous name and using Amini’s face as an avatar, summed up the situation: “Iran won. The Islamic Republic lost and was eliminated.”
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