Iran team members refuse to sing the national anthem in an apparent protest against Iran's government, during their first 2022 FIFA World Cup Group B match at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on Monday. Photo by Chris Brunskill/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 21 (UPI) -- Players on Iran's national soccer team refused to sing their country's national anthem on Monday, at their first World Cup game in Qatar in an apparent protest of Iran's government and support for ongoing demonstrations over women's rights.
Iran's team members stood in a line, with arms around one another wearing no expressions, as their anthem played before the World Cup game against England.
While the Iranian team has sung its anthem in previous tournaments, including the World Cup in 2018 and the Asian Cup in 2020, the players remained silent Monday as a number of Iranian fans inside the stadium booed and held signs that read "Women, life and freedom."
The team and fans appeared to convey their support for protesters in Iran over the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody for not wearing a hijab correctly.
Since Amini's death more than 450 people, including children, have been killed. Human rights groups said there were reports 11 people were killed in Mahabad, as recently as Saturday and Sunday, as military equipment patrolled the streets.
On Monday, Iran's state television cut away during the team's protest, but did air the game. Soccer is a national obsession in Iran where schools were shut to allow students to watch.
While the pro-government Fars news agency did not air any protests at the game, it did carry extensive coverage of Iran's 6-2 loss to England.
Support for the team has waned as posters of the players were torn down in parts of Tehran before the game, and people took to social media to support England.
During a press conference, Iran's soccer captain Ehsan Hajsafi vocalized the team's dissatisfaction with the government and his support for 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. "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," Hajsafi added.
While the soccer team's manager said Iran's players are free to protest the government's heavy-handed repression, there could be repercussions for them when they return to Iran.
"At worst I'll be kicked out of the national team, which is a small price to pay for every single strand of Iranian women's hair," Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun wrote on Instagram. "Shame on you for killing the people."
Iran's government has already punished a number athletes and celebrities who have supported the protests. Actors Hengameh Ghaziani and Katayoun Riahi were arrested over their social media posts, according to official news agency IRNA.
On Saturday, Ghaziani posted a video on Instagram without wearing her head covering in an act of defiance.
"Maybe this will be my last post," Ghaziani said. "From this moment on, whatever happens to me, know that as always, I am with Iranian people until my last breath."
Raheem Sterling (C) of England is mobbed by teammates after he scoried his third goal during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Group B match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, on November 21, 2022. England beat Iran 6-2. Photo by Chris Brunskill/UPI | License Photo