Team Melli Once United Iran at World Cup. Now It Reflects Its Divisions.

Iran’s national football team has historically been seen as representing the people of the country rather than the government of the Islamic Republic.

Team Melli, as the squad is known, has been embraced as an apolitical force, and as a secular spirit that reflects a certain ideal, Iran is everyone’s imagination. Over the years, the team has brought unity and joy to a divided nation. His support has been effectively unconditional.

So far.

As the World Cup approaches in Qatar, the first time the world’s biggest sporting event is held in the Middle East, the Iranian team finds itself in an unfamiliar, polarizing position.

Team Milli is caught up in the internal politics of Iran, where an ongoing national uprising led by women and youth is demanding an end to clerical rule, and more fair treatment and increased personal freedoms. The protests were fueled by the death in police custody in mid-September. Mehsa AminiA 22-year-old young woman who was arrested by the moral police in Tehran, the capital of Iran, for violating the head covering law for women.

Some workers inside And outside Iran has demanded football’s governing body FIFA to bar Iran from participating in the World Cup. They cite the government’s crackdown on protesters, which has left more than 250 dead, but longstanding football grievances such as limited access to stadiums for women to watch matches, and more specifically But political grievances, such as Iran’s provision of weaponized drones to Russia to aid its attack. Ukraine.

A ban seems unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter Urged all World Cup teams and their federations to focus on football before politics. Analysts, fans, journalists, and former coaches and players said, but support for Team Melli is now divided at home in this emotional and insightful moment.

The split was evident in the wounded voice of 80-year-old Jalal Talebi, who coached his native Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he led Team Melli to its most important victory to date. over the United States. (Iran is again in the same first-round group as the U.S. in Qatar.) Talebi called soccer “a part of life” in an interview, but said he supports the protests and believes it’s part of life. “There is no time” to take. in the world cup. He said he may refuse to work as a commentator for international television, and may not even be able to watch Iran games from his home in the Bay Area.

“How can I feel watching football when my neighbor, my brother, my countryman and countrywoman are in such bad shape?” The student said.

Famous Iranian singer Mohammad Motamadi, 44, was chosen as the official singer of Team Melli for this World Cup but he declined, writing on his Instagram page, “In the situation, I don’t even feel like talking, except singing.” Give it.”

Kayvan, a 47-year-old lawyer from Tehran, who asked that only his first name be used, canceled his tickets, flights and hotel accommodation for Iran’s group matches in Qatar, saying the protests and the government’s A violent crackdown has led to a change of heart. .

But other fans said they fully supported Iran’s participation. Ali Gholizadeh, 37, a postdoctoral researcher in Mashhad, said soccer is one of the remaining joys for people who feel oppressed by oppression and international economic sanctions.

Gholizada said that taking away the World Cup from us will be a collective punishment.

Even the national team players seem divided on whether or how forcefully they should support the protesters.

According to a report Twitter And according to Telegram, an independent journalist in Iran, the team’s star forwards, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Tarami, got into a heated argument at a training camp in Austria in September. The controversy reportedly erupted after Azmoun posted on Instagram that “national team rules” prevented players from expressing their views on national protests, while also saying that they had to take their place at the World Cup. willing to “sacrifice” “for a hair. head of Iranian women.” Azmon briefly cleaned up his Instagram feed, then resumed with more discreet postings.

Analysts said some fans have accused the players of being subsidized by the government, securing their loyalty with real estate deals and imported luxury cars. Others accused the players of apathy at an Austrian training camp in the days following Amini’s death, celebrating wildly after an exhibition victory over Uruguay and celebrating the 30th birthday of goalkeeper Alireza Beranwind. .

“The excitement and joy we always felt for soccer and the World Cup is non-existent this time,” said Amir Ali, 54, an engineer in Tehran who declined to give his last name. request. “We don’t care, and some say if Team Melli loses, it’s a defeat for the government.”

Those more sympathetic to the athletes note that they are undoubtedly facing a lot of pressure — and perhaps even threats from the government — not to publicly support the protests because they only take place once every four years. They want to advance their career in the tournament. Their concentration will surely be tested. And their every move will continue to be scrutinized.

Protests are expected in Qatar, with fans chanting “woman, life, freedom,” rebellion chants inside and outside stadiums, with pictures of Amini aloft. During a cabinet meeting on October 30, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said he was worried about Team Mali, and asked the foreign ministry to liaise with Qatar – Iran’s closest Arab ally – to “Problems can be prevented from occurring.”

Inside Iran, if past World Cups are any indication, the government may ban large public gatherings, where fans gather to watch matches and participate in street celebrations.

Some Iranians have called on Team Melli (and its World Cup opponents, including England and Wales) to show solidarity with the protest movement in Qatar. This can take the form of subtle gestures, such as wristbands, or messages written on T-shirts or jerseys, or refusing to sing Iran’s national anthem or celebrate goals at its games.

The players, though, are more motivated. On November 2, powerful club team Estaghlal, which includes several potential World Cup players, won the Iranian Super Cup, but Amir Arslan Muthari, who scored the winning goal, did not celebrate. Instead, she shed a tear that was contained within one. Image. Another player, Mehdi Ghaidi, wrote the name of a young fan who was shot dead by security forces in the northern city of Babol. his jersey.

Afterward, Steagall’s players kept their arms crossed gracefully during the trophy ceremony. Team Officials Twitter page “Nobody’s happy,” announced the video above the silent postgame ceremony.

A player, Sivash Yazdani, told Iranian broadcast media said it was a “bitter victory in a bitter time” and dedicated the match “to the women of Iran and the families of all the victims.”

A day later, Azmoun, the Team Melee star, posted “Dear Esteghlal” on his Instagram page With a blue heart, the team’s color, against a black screen of mourning.

State television turned off its live feed during Esteghlal’s victory ceremony. This may suggest that Iran will broadcast World Cup matches live with similar caution, with short delays and, perhaps, from stadiums to avoid broadcasting or showing protests in stadiums. Includes crowd noise rather than actual sounds.

“Athletes don’t have to be active, but they have to be patriotic,” said Haliya, 50, an electrical engineer from Tehran. who asked that their last name not be used. “It’s called Team Melli, after all, that means it’s for the people and the nation.”

Jack Bagg participated in the research.

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