Iran’s regime a big loser at World Cup

by Bobby Ghosh

There is a long tradition of authoritarian states using soccer’s World Cup to distract attention — domestic and foreign alike — from their tyranny. The Islamic Republic milked buckets of self-serving propaganda out of the national team’s participation in the quadrennial competition, never more than in 1998 when Iran beat the “Great Satan” in Lyon, France.

Iranians, like much of the rest of the world, are soccer mad; the country comes to a halt when Team Melli, as the national squad is known, plays in the World Cup. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself stayed up late to watch the famous win in Lyon. When the team returned home, he reportedly invited Hamid Estili, who scored the first of two goals against the U.S., to his residence and kissed him on the forehead.

The regime played up the win as a symbol of its resistance against American perfidy and the wild celebrations across Iran as proof that the nation was united, not just behind Team Melli but also the government.

That won’t work this time, no matter how the Iranian team fares against the U.S. when they clash in Doha Tuesday in the latest iteration of the tournament. For one thing, the streets are now a stage for protest, not celebration. For more than two months, Iranians have been calling for the regime’s downfall. It would be hard for the regime to boast of resistance against the West when even on the day of the first game, security forces were intensifying their violent crackdown on protesters, especially in the northwestern city of Mahabad.

For another, Team Melli isn’t playing along with the propaganda this time. Any hope the regime in Tehran may have harbored of using the World Cup to distract attention from its brutal attempts to put down a sustained protest movement were dashed when Iran’s players refused to sing the national anthem before their opening game against England, the theocrats’ second-choice Western bugaboo.

The team thus joined other Iranian sports teams and athletes who have either remained mute during the playing of the anthem or have used other gestures to express solidarity with the protesters. Afterward, soccer captain Ehsan Hajsafi was blunt: “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.”

Team Melli’s defiance is doubly remarkable because officials had warned the players not to express solidarity with the protests. Khamenei himself had admonished them not to “disrespect” the country. Ahead of the tournament, the team met with President Ebrahim Raisi and gave him the No. 12 jersey.

This had earned them the scorn of the protesters, some of whom took to calling them “Team Mullah” in street chants and on social media. Some Iranian fans at the stadium in Doha were heard to shout “Shameless! Shameless!” at the players.

Since Iranian state TV didn’t show the team’s mute protest, their solidarity with the protesters didn’t immediately register back home. After the game, videos posted on social media platforms showed some Iranians celebrating the national team’s defeat by honking car horns. In one especially remarkable video, a couple is seen waving the Union Jack.

Has Team Melli redeemed itself in the eyes of the protesters by refusing to sing the anthem?

Meanwhile, you can bet that Iranian officials will be putting enormous pressure on players to sing lustily before their game against the Americans — if nothing else, then to push the narrative that Iranians hate the U.S. more than they despise their own rulers. But the World Cup’s propaganda value to the regime will have already been drained.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was the international editor at Time.