Some Iranians have celebrated their team’s loss to the US and subsequent exit from the World Cup, as demonstrations against the government’s treatment of protesters took place inside and outside the stadium in Qatar and across Iran.
The contest between the Iranian and American sides, whose countries severed diplomatic ties more than 40 years ago, took place under increased security to prevent a flare-up over the anti-government protests that have taken place across Iran since the death in custody of the 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on 16 September.
When the match was lost, the Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad posted videos of celebrations on Twitter, writing: “Iran is a country where people are very passionate about football. Now they are out in the streets in the city of Sanandaj and celebrate the loss of their football team against US.” She also posted a video of fireworks being let off in Saqqez, Mahsa Amini’s home town.
“The Islamic Republic banned women from entering stadiums for 40 years and now people are chanting ‘woman, life, freedom’ to celebrate being booted out of the World Cup,” Alinejad wrote above a video from Kermanshah in western Iran.
Iranians also celebrated in Marivan, which was among the cities in western Iran’s Kurdish-populated regions where, on 21 November, security forces intensified a crackdown that killed a dozen people over 24 hours, directly shooting at protesters and using heavy weapons, rights groups said.
There were also celebrations in Tehran and Sanandaj, Kurdistan’s capital.
The celebrations came after fans outside the stadium in Doha sought to highlight the protests and the Iranian government’s crackdown. “Everybody should know about this. We don’t have voice in Iran,” an Iranian living in the US, who gave his name only as Sam, told Reuters.
Speaking by phone from Tehran shortly before kick-off, 21-year-old Elham said she wanted the US to win because victory for the national squad, known as Team Melli, would be a gift for Iranian authorities. “This is not my national team. It is not the Melli team, it is the mullahs’ team,” she said.
Extra security personnel, some mounted on horseback, patrolled outside the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha before the match, while guards at the perimeter made Iranians unfurl their flags before entering. Police were stationed throughout the stadium alongside regular security guards. Some carried batons.
Early in the second half, a group of fans briefly held up letters spelling Mahsa Amini’s name, to applause from Iranian supporters around them. Security personnel took their signs but allowed them to remain in their seats.
Under pressure to publicly support protesters at home, the Iranian team declined to sing the national anthem in their first game against England, which they lost 6-2. But they sang it before the second game, a 2-0 victory over Wales, and again on Tuesday. When Iran lost to England, there were celebrations in Tehran too.
Outside the stadium after the match, Reuters journalists saw security chase two people in a series of scuffles on the ground’s perimeter. Three guards pinned one man to the ground, who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “woman, life, freedom”, the central slogan of the Iranian protest movement.
The man repeatedly yelled “woman, life, freedom” as guards were on top of him. A witness told Reuters the altercation began when guards attempted to remove the man’s shirt.
In the second half of the match, five members of the Russian activist punk group Pussy Riot stood in the stadium stands wearing green balaclavas and T-shirts that read “woman, life, freedom”. On the back, the shirts carried the names of people killed in Iran, along with their ages, Nika Nikulshina, a group member, told Reuters.
“It’s our gesture of support for Iranian women and we want to highlight that Iran is sending drones to Russia to kill Ukraine. We want to remind everyone that there is not only Fifa and fun, and that there’s a war going on,” she said.
Stadium security removed the balaclavas and after the match, “politely” escorted the women out of the stadium, said Nikulshina, who invaded the pitch in 2018 during the World Cup final in Moscow.