Why Iran's Players Are Under More Pressure

On Sunday, after his Iranian side defeated Uruguay 1-0 in a friendly, Sardar Azmoun turned to Instagram and wrote: "Due to the restrictive laws imposed on us in the national team I should not speak ... Risk to be sent home, but I can't take it anymore! You can never wipe it from your conscience. Shame on you! Kill easily. Long live the Iranian women! " The reference was clear. Azmoun, like many Iranians, was outraged by the police response to protests that rocked Iran - from metropolitan Tehran to smaller rural villages - following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, who was detained by Iran after his arrest became the so-called "morals police". She was 22 years old. According to her brother, who was with her when she was arrested, he was told she was not wearing her hijab or headscarf appropriately. Azmoun, who has more than 5 million followers, saw his post go viral almost immediately. In a country - and a national team - already on the edge and playing in sheltered, almost surreal conditions, as my colleague Mark Ogden reported last week, he was pouring fuel on the fire of those who wanted change. On Monday night, when Iran played another friendly against Senegal, a 1-1 draw, the Iranian players decided to go out in black jackets before kick-off, which was seen by many as a sign. of protest. The 27-year-old striker, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, has been hailed as a hero both at home and by the Iranian diaspora around the world. His message was later deleted, and then his account was deleted. The narrative resurfaced on Wednesday, and this time Azmoun appears to have gone 180 degrees. "I have to apologize to the national team players for upsetting my dear friends, some fans even insulted the national team," he wrote. "It was by no means fair and it was my fault. I blame myself and I am ashamed of all the national team members and technical staff who disturbed the order and peace of the team." What gives? We don't know, although many will draw their own conclusions. What is undeniable is that those who insist that politics has no place in sport live somewhere between a place called denial and the hole where ostriches stick their heads. It's already there and has been for a very long time. Because, simply put, few endeavors attract as much attention or provide as big a stage as football, especially international football. And nothing is bigger than the World Cup in which Iran will compete in Qatar in November, where it is in a group with the United States, England and Wales. The elephant in the room is what happens when Iran kicks off its World Cup campaign against England on November 21st. media, but many others have blacked out their profile in solidarity), what do they do when they take the field with billions of people around the world watching? And if the demonstrations are not repressed - not through brutal government repression, but through greater understanding, tolerance and respect for women's rights - how will the government respond? What is the host country, Qatar, a close and historically close ally of Iran doing? And last but not least, how does FIFA react? Let's take the last two, because they are simpler. Qatar, like Iran, is also an Islamic country ruled by a royal family that has been scrutinized for human rights violations, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues and the rights of migrant workers. But there are no "moral police" in Qatar - at least not of the kind they have in Iran - and Muslim women are not forced to wear the veil (although many do so by choice or custom). Iran is in no position to force Qatar to do anything, much less with the world to watch, and has promised to be welcoming and inclusive (at least for the duration of the tournament). FIFA has statutes that prohibit slogans, messages or actions of a political, religious or personal nature. But what was once a harsh stance has eased over the years as social mores have changed. A year ago, when Norway and Germany broadcast a human rights message centered entirely on Qatar, FIFA refused to act, saying it "believes in freedom of expression and the power of football as a force for good". And when the players knelt or supported the protesters after George Floyd's death, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said the players "should be applauded and not punished". Add to that that the captains of nine European countries at the World Cup will play in armbands displaying a rainbow flag and the message "One Love", and it is hard to see any action being taken. (And while the armbands don't explicitly call out Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers or the safety of LGBTQ communities, this press release from the Football Association in England leaves little doubt about the message.) Which leaves a huge question mark hanging over the players and the Iranian government. Of the 27 players called up by coach Carlos Queiroz for the last two friendlies, 16 are currently playing at their club football outside Iran and another seven have played at some point in their careers abroad. It is therefore not surprising that many identify with the protesters and their calls for women's rights: they have first-hand experience of another way of life. And that, coupled with the massive popularity of “Team Melli” (as the Iranian national party is called) and the huge platform it gives them, makes them a potential threat to the more conservative elements of the Iranian regime. For one thing, the vast majority of them have family, friends and business interests in Iran and could face repercussions back home if they take a public stand in Qatar. On the other hand, it might tip the balance towards a more just and less repressive society for women, and they might never have such a public platform again. That's the pressure Team Melli faces six weeks into the World Cup. Don't tell them that politics and social messaging have no place in football. This ship sailed a long time ago.