Even before a ball was kicked in Iran’s World Cup opener against England on Monday, the Iranian players made a strong statement.
In a show of solidarity with protesters at home, the players remained silent as the Iranian national anthem was played around the Khalifa International Stadium before kick-off on Monday. The game ended in a 6-2 victory for England.
Protests, chaos and violence have shaken Iran in recent months, threatening the very nature of the country’s regime, which has been in power for more than 40 years.
The protests, which experts say are the most significant since the establishment of clerical rule after Iran’s 1979 revolution, were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after allegedly being arrested by Iran’s morality police for not following the country’s conservative dress code. Iranian security forces have unleashed a violent response.
Ahead of the tournament, Iran manager Carlos Queiroz said players are allowed to protest while competing in Qatar.
Monday’s silent show of respect was met with a vocal reaction from Iranian fans, many of whom cheered the entire time. It’s unclear if it was about player support.
On the pitch, Iran could not match England’s quality as goals from Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling put England out of sight at the end of the first half.
The impressive Saka added his second in the second half, with more goals from Marcus Rashford and Jack Grelish completing the defeat.
Iran gave their fans something to cheer after Mehdi Taremi scored a well-made goal to make it 4-1 and added a penalty right at the end of injury time, but for many Iranian fans the result would not have been the most significant event of the day.
It is testament to the precarious political situation in Iran that many fans felt the need to hide their identities as they walked into the stadium for this Group B game.
Three Iranians spoke to CNN wearing hats, masks and sunglasses, none of whom felt comfortable giving their names for fear of repercussions in Iran.
One had giant scissors, symbolizing the act of defiance that has spread across Iran when women cut their hair. They were afraid of rumors that Iranian authorities had sent security forces to Qatar to monitor fans, but said their own safety was less important than the plight of their families and friends back home.
“We know the players are under immense pressure, but the Iranian people expect them to do something,” a fan told CNN.
After the protests and human rights violations in Iran, several groups inside and outside the country called on FIFA, the world governing body of sport, to ban the country from participating in the World Cup.
In October, a group of prominent Iranian athletes lobbied FIFA through a law firm, urging the governing body to suspend the Football Federation of Iran (FFIRI) and ban it from participating in the World Cup.
The Football Union of Ukraine also called on FIFA to “exclude” the Iran national team, citing “systematic human rights abuses” there and “Iran’s possible involvement in Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino defended Iran’s participation in the World Cup in his pre-tournament press conference, saying the match against England was “two football teams” competing in matches, rather than “two regimes” or “two ideologies”.
England also had a decision to make ahead of their opening game. The Football Association and captain Harry Kane had announced they would wear a “One Love” armband to promote inclusion and counteract discrimination.
However, just hours before kick-off, England joined several other nations in an attempt to reverse their decision at risk of receiving yellow cards for wearing the armband.
Organizers had hoped that once the tournament got underway, attention would shift from the off-field issues to the on-field action. But just two days into the tournament, football is still the center of attention.