Team Melli Once United Iran at World Cup. Now It Reflects Its Divisions.

The Iran national football team has historically been considered representative of the people of the country, not of the government of the Islamic Republic.

Team Melli, as it was known, was seen as an apolitical force, and as a secular passion that reflected a certain ideal, Iran in everyone’s imagination. For years, the team has brought unity and joy to a long-standing nation. Support for it has been effective unconditionally.

Until now.

As the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the world’s largest sporting event held in the Middle East for the first time, the Iranian team finds itself in a polarized, alien position.

Team Melli has become a snare in Iran’s internal politics, where an ongoing national uprising led by women and youth is demanding an end to clericalism and seeking treatment. greater equity and increased individual freedom. The protests were fueled by a death in mid-September in police custody Mahsa AminiAt 22 years old, a young woman was arrested by the ethics police in Tehran, the capital of Iran, for violating the law requiring women to cover their heads.

Some activists internal and outside Iran has called on FIFA, football’s governing body, to ban Iran from competing in the World Cup. They cited the government’s crackdown on protesters, which left more than 250 people dead, but also long-standing grievances about football such as limited access to stadiums by women to watch matches. , and more overt political complaints, like Iran’s supply of weaponized drones to Russia to support its invasion of Ukraine.

A ban seems very unlikely: recent FIFA sent a letter to all World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to focus on football before politics. Support for Team Melli is now divided even at home during this emotional and visceral time, say analysts, fans, journalists, former coaches and players.

The split is clear in the traumatized voice of 80-year-old Jalal Talebi, who coached his homeland Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he guided Team Melli to the most important victory since so far, on the United States. (Iran is again in the same group as the United States in Qatar.) Talebi called football “a part of life” in an interview, but said he supports the protests and believes “not the time” to participate in the World Cup. He said he might refuse to be a commentator for international television and might not even watch Iran’s matches from his home in the Bay Area.

“How does it feel to watch football when my neighbors, brothers, countrymen and countrymen are in such a bad situation?” Talebi said.

Mohammad Motamedi, 44, a famous Iranian vocalist, was chosen to be the official singer of Team Melli for this World Cup but declined, writing on his Instagram page: “In that situation, I didn’t even want to talk let alone sing.”

Keyvan, 47, a lawyer from Tehran who asked to use only his name, has canceled tickets, flights and hotel accommodation for Iran’s group stage matches in Qatar, saying he has changed changed his mind because of the government’s violent protests and crackdown. .

But other fans said they fully support Iran’s involvement. Ali Gholizadeh, 37, a postdoctoral researcher from Mashhad, says football is one of the joys left for those who feel squeezed by international economic repression and sanctions.

Gholizadeh said: “Take the World Cup away from us, would be ‘collective punishment’.

Even players on the national team appear divided over whether they should show support for the protesters.

According to a report on Twitter and Telegram of an independent journalist in Iran, the team’s star forwards, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Terami, had a heated argument in September at a training camp in Austria. The dispute is said to have come about after Azmoun posted on Instagram that “national team rules” prevented players from expressing their views on the national protests, while saying he was willing to willing to “sacrifice” her place in the World Cup “for a hair of Iranian women’s heads.” Azmoun flicked through his Instagram feed, then continued with more cautious posts.

Analysts say some fans have accused the players of being co-picked by the government, whose loyalty is secured by real estate deals and imported luxury cars. Others accused the players of being tactless at the Austrian training camp in the days following Amini’s death, by celebrating with excitement after the win over Uruguay and by throwing a 30th birthday party. for goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

Amir Ali, 54, an engineer in Tehran, said: “We have always felt the excitement and joy for football and this World Cup is non-existent.” “We don’t care, and some say if Team Melli loses, it’s a failure for the regime.”

Those more sympathetic to the players note that they are certainly facing enormous pressure – and possibly threats from the government – not to side with the protesters as they seek to advance. career advancement in a tournament held only every four years. Their concentration will certainly be tested. And their every move will continue to be scrutinized.

Fan rallies holding Amini’s photos aloft and chanting “Women, Life, Freedom”, the mantra of the uprising, were widely expected in Qatar, on and off the pitches. motor. During a cabinet meeting on October 30, the President of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, said he was worried about the Melli Group and he asked the Foreign Ministry to coordinate with Qatar – Iran’s closest Arab ally – to prevent “problems from appearing”.

In Iran, if previous World Cups are any indication, the government could limit mass gatherings in public places where fans gather to watch matches and attend celebrations. concept on the street.

Some Iranians have called on Team Melli (and its World Cup rivals, including England and Wales) to show solidarity with the protest movement while in Qatar. This can happen in the form of subtle gestures, such as a handshake, or more public gestures such as a message written on a t-shirt or jersey, or a refusal to sing Iran’s national anthem or celebrate national events. goals in their matches.

However, players can be more and more incentivized. On November 2, the mighty Esteghlal club team, which included several potential World Cup players, won the Iranian Super Cup, but Amir Arsalan Motahari, who scored the goal, did not celebrate. Instead, he shed a tear recorded in a Photograph. Another player, Mehdi Ghayedi, writes the name of a young fan who was shot dead by security forces in the northern city of Babol his jersey.

Afterwards, the Esteghlal players crossed their arms during the trophy ceremony. Official team Twitter page claims that “nobody is happy” above a muted post-game video of the ceremony.

One player, Siavash Yazdani, told The Iranian media described it as “a bitter victory in bitter times” and dedicated the match “to the Iranian women and the families of all the victims.”

A day later, Azmoun, the star of Team Melli, posted “Venerable Esteghlal” on Instagram page with a blue heart, team color, on a mourning black screen.

State television cut its live feed during Esteghlal’s victory ceremony. That could suggest that Iran will broadcast live World Cup matches with similar caution, including briefly delaying it to avoid broadcasting or showing stadium protests. and perhaps staged crowd noise instead of actual stadium sounds.

“Athletes don’t have to be activists, but they have to be patriots,” said Haleh, 50, an electrical engineer from Tehran, who asked not to use his last name. “It’s called Team Melli anyway, which means it’s for the people and for the country.”

Jack Begg contributed research.


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