Ongoing protests cast shadow over World Cup for Iranian Americans

Protests against the Iranian government following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have spilled over into football.

iran protest
Ahead of a World Cup match against Wales on November 25, an Iranian fan holds up a flag emblazoned with the slogan 'Woman, Life Freedom' in solidarity with the protest movement in Iran, while another carries a jersey bearing the name of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death in police custody helped spark the protests [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

Los Angeles, California, United States — For years, cheering on the Iranian national football team was a way for some Iranian Americans to celebrate their home country without endorsing the clerical government that has ruled Iran since the 1979 revolution.

But this year, as Iran competes in the 2022 World Cup, politics are on the pitch, as players and fans echo the protests sweeping Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being detained by the country’s morality police in September.

In Los Angeles, home to one of the world’s largest Persian diaspora communities, feelings towards Iran’s participation in the World Cup are mixed, with some spectators voicing disillusionment with the Iranian national team, also known as Team Melli.

“It’s safe to say that everything has been politicised,” said Benjamin Radd, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Sports has entered the fray, and you’re seeing acts of protest from prominent athletes, and these are forums for worldwide attention.”

In the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Westwood, an area with a large Iranian American community, Farsi is frequently spoken, and posters bearing the image of Amini or popular slogans from the protest movement such as “Women, Life, Freedom” abound.

But among residents, enthusiasm for the upcoming game against the United States is difficult to find.

A poster of a raised fist with a red background
A poster in the window of a Persian business in Los Angeles, California, expresses support for the protests in Iran [Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

“During the last World Cup, our restaurant was full of people celebrating,” said Ranna, who moved to the US from Tehran in 2005 and works at a Persian restaurant in Westwood. She asked that only her first name be used due to the sensitive nature of the protests.

“But this year it’s different. The government is killing people in the street. What is there to celebrate?”

A forum for protests

In Iran, the government’s reaction to the protests following Amini’s death has been harsh. According to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the unrest, more than 400 people have been killed and nearly 18,000 people have been arrested as the government tries to break the most formidable challenge to its system of clerical rule in years.

Last week, the United Nations voted to investigate potential human rights abuses by the government, with a focus on violence against women and children.

Some Iranian celebrities and athletes have voiced support for the protesters. And at the World Cup, Iranian fans have also used the tournament as a forum to draw attention to the demonstrations and the government’s response.

During their team’s opening match against England, Iranian fans chanted slogans like “Say her name! Mahsa Amini!” and “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”, which translates to “Women, Life, Freedom”.

The Iranian national team itself stayed silent in an act of protest as Iran’s national anthem played, although they declined to do so in their next match against Wales.

Before the start of the tournament, the team’s captain Ehsan Hajsafi said in a press conference that he wished to express “condolences to all the grieving families in Iran. They should know that we stand with them and we sympathise with them.”

He added, “We are here, but it does not mean that we should be silent.”

Radd, the UCLA professor, pointed out that Iranian celebrities and athletes are under immense pressure from the government, which sees even mild statements of support for the protests as a threat.

“The government has learned that any act of protest can be a spark,” Radd told Al Jazeera. “And they will be imposing a cost that makes even token acts of defiance an act of incredible bravery.”

One athlete — Voria Ghafouri, a Kurdish Iranian footballer and former member of the national team — was recently arrested for spreading “propaganda”, following his outspoken support for the protesters. He also expressed solidarity with Iran’s Kurdish communities, where there have been reports of especially severe crackdowns by the government. Iran state media said Ghafouri has since been released on bail.

Radd said that he has heard members of the Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles express sympathy for the pressure that Iran’s players are under. But they would like to see more acts of solidarity from other teams, who do not face the same penalties for speaking out.

“The regime wants to avoid acts of international spectacle,” Radd said. “But as we’re seeing in protests all around the world, repression takes a lot of work. There are too many ways to get the message out.”

Shifting views towards Iran’s national team

But back in Westwood, some spectators are unimpressed. Rafi Khazai, a shopper who spoke outside a grocery store in Westwood while visiting from Paris, expressed disappointment that the Iranian national team had met with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi ahead of the World Cup.

Khazai would have liked to see the team drop out of the tournament altogether.

“In solidarity with the protests, all 11 players should have refused to play,” he said. “If they would have stood down, it would have been in the history books. They would have been heroes.”

Pedram Dolatabadi, another shopper who travels nearly an hour from his California residence to buy groceries in the Persian neighbourhood, voiced sympathy for the Iranian players, saying they face serious risks by speaking out.

“I am certain that they have been forced and threatened to show pro-regime gestures such as singing the national anthem,” Dolatabadi told Al Jazeera. “So deep inside I do not see them as Islamic republic sympathisers.”

Dolatabadi added, “I look forward to seeing the entire team rising against the regime and standing in solidarity with their people.”

Arash Sobhani, an Iranian activist and musician based in New York City, believes spectators are more disillusioned with the Iranian national team than ever before.

“For a while, the national team was the darling of everyone because they were one of the only avenues to cheer for Iran regardless of your political background,” Sobhani said. “This time around it’s different. Gradually, people have started to feel that this team doesn’t represent the people of Iran.”

A billboard with the words "Women, life, freedom" above Westwood Boulevard
A billboard carries a slogan from the Iranian protest movement on Westwood Boulevard in Los Angeles, an area with many Persian restaurants and businesses [Brian Osgood/Al Jazeera]

Sobhani pointed out that politics have long been present in Iranian football. Iranian women, for instance, have been largely banned from football stadiums since 1979. This year’s World Cup has only brought those issues into sharper focus, he said.

“Even if the national team makes it to the final, it won’t unite the nation,” said Sobhani. Some, he noted, will even be cheering for the United States on Tuesday.

Source: Al Jazeera