Iran’s national men’s soccer team refused to sing the country’s national anthem at the World Cup in Qatar on Monday, in an apparent act of defiance against their government, which has become the target of growing and incendiary protests.
The team stood in a line with arms around each other’s shoulders, before their opening match against England, but instead of singing the words, as is traditional, the players looked stony-faced and stared straight ahead.
England’s players, by contrast, sang a verse of their national anthem.
The moment was not shown on state TV in Iran.
The Iranian team has enthusiastically sung the anthem in previous tournaments, including the World Cup in 2018 and the Asian Cup in 2020.
Soccer is close to a national obsession in Iran, as it is in other nations, but public opinion has soured ahead of this year’s tournament. Across the country, billboards for the team have been burned and people have taken to social media to support England.
Earlier, Ehsan Hajsafi, Iran’s captain, acknowledged widespread dissatisfaction at home, becoming the latest public figure to support the protesters.
“We have to accept that the situation in our country is not good and that our people are not happy, they are discontent,” Hajsafi said at a press conference. “We are here, but it does not mean we should not be their voice or that we should not respect them. Whatever we have is theirs.”
“We have to perform the best we can and score goals and dedicate those goals to the people of Iran who are feeling hurt,” he added.
His statement followed Iran’s decision to punish a string of prominent Iranians who had publicly supported protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September, days after she was detained by police for allegedly breaking the country’s strict dress codes.
The well-known Iranian actors Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were both arrested, official news agency IRNA and government-aligned Tasnim reported on Sunday.
Ghaziani posted a video to her Instagram account showing her without a head covering — an act of defiance often repeated by protesters and their supporters in recent weeks.
“Maybe this will be my last post. From this moment on, whatever happens to me, know that as always, I am with Iranian people until my last breath,” Ghaziani wrote on Instagram on Saturday.
The state-sanctioned IRNA news outlet said she “had in the past few days supported riots and incited riots.”
Yahya Golmohammadi, head coach of Persepolis FC in Tehran, one of Iran’s most famous teams, was summoned and questioned by authorities, semi-official ISNA news agency reported Saturday.
Golmohammadi was questioned at the prosecutor’s office in Tehran and fined 20%0 of his wages for Instagram posts in which he said the Iranian national team should “be the voice of the people” and support the protests.
The news came as the continuing protest movement and the security forces’ attempts to quash dissent led to further unrest over the weekend and into Monday.
Iranian security forces had restored order in Mahabad, Boukan and Piranshahr and “have started to arrest the ones making the cities unsafe from Friday,” ISNA reported.
Unverified video on social media on Monday showed a convoy of military vehicles with heavily armed troops, purportedly in the western city of Mahabad, a predominantly Kurdish region. The sounds of heavy weaponry could be heard in several other videos.
The human rights group Hengaw said gunfire and helicopters could be heard across Mahabad. The group posted footage from Mahabad to its Telegram channel Sunday, adding the hashtag #IranRevolution2022, in which loud bangs could be heard.
Independent reporting is difficult if not impossible in Iran, and NBC News cannot confirm social media reports or claims by the government or human rights groups.
Nour News, an outlet owned by Iran’s National Security Council, posted infrared footage which it said was from a Ministry of Intelligence drone observing what it called “armed terrorists.”
Jalal Mahmoudzadeh, a member of Iran’s Parliament representing Mahabad, urged the police and armed forces to show restraint. “We expect the security forces to protect people’s lives and property,” he said in a statement.
He said he wrote to the Supreme National Security Council asking security forces stationed in the city to “treat the people with dignity and kindness so that the city calms down.”
The protests and the resulting police crackdown have turned increasingly violent. The Norway-based Iran Human Rights group said that at least 342 people, including 43 children and 26 women, have been killed so far as Iran counters a movement that’s considered one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since it was founded in 1979.