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Iran Soccer Stars Speak Out on Protests; Group Urges FIFA Ban

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One of the beloved players in Iran’s soccer history had his family home raided by the authorities after speaking out against the federal government. At the very least two other well-known players have been arrested and detained for lending support to the protests which have roiled Iran because the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on Sept. 16.

And 6 weeks before the World Cup in Qatar, the Iranian national team’s star forward has suggested that he and his teammates are subject to what’s in effect a gag order, warned that even commenting on the protests may cost them their places on the team. Unable to talk publicly, Iran’s players prepared for his or her final tuneup game this week in Austria with what amounted to a silent protest as an alternative, covering their jerseys in black jackets in the course of the national anthem.

Now, a gaggle that has long campaigned for ladies and girls to be allowed into stadiums to observe soccer in Iran has urged the sport’s global governing body, FIFA, to intervene. In a letter to the soccer body’s president on Thursday, the group called on FIFA to throw Iran’s team out of the World Cup for a “blatant violation” of soccer’s rules on governmental interference.

“The Iranian Football Association is a vital ambassador of the Islamic Republic and is acting in keeping with the repressive regime,” the activist group, Open Stadiums, wrote in a letter to FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino. “It comes as no surprise, then, that they’ve prohibited footballers from showing any solidarity with the Iranian residents’ call for freedom and the victims of the identical authorities’ brutal crackdown.

The letter asked FIFA “to instantly expel Iran from the World Cup 2022 in Qatar.”

FIFA declined to comment on the letter on Thursday.

The request to eject Iran was made more in hope than expectation: FIFA is unlikely to eject the team from a tournament for which it has qualified, especially so near the competition, nor has it shown any effort to pressure Iran with anything greater than public statements. A majority of Iranian fans also would oppose to a World Cup ban; lots of them revere the national team, which is referred to as Team Melli, and see it as a representative of the people slightly than the federal government.

But soccer’s leadership could face considerable pressure from the impact of the protests sweeping Iran after the death of Amini, a 22-year-old woman who had been arrested by the country’s morality police; any effort by the federal government to silence the national team’s players; and repercussions against current and former players who’ve publicly supported the protests.

Infantino visited Tehran in 2018 to observe the ultimate of the Asian Champions League, a game for which a small group of ladies was permitted to enter the town’s Azadi Stadium. Within the months that followed, he claimed that FIFA had made “repeated calls” to the Iranian authorities to “address the unacceptable situation” of ladies not being permitted to enter stadiums.

“Our position is firm and clear,” Infantino said in 2019, after a fan set herself on fire outside a courthouse where she faced being jailed for having attended a game. “Women should be allowed into football stadiums in Iran.” He restated that position as recently as last 12 months, when he praised the work of the president of Iran’s federation after a gathering in Doha.

Open Stadiums on Thursday said it had concluded that “these were all empty words and guarantees.” In March, for instance, women holding tickets to a match within the northeastern city of Mashhad were denied entry after they tried to enter the stadium. Some were attacked with pepper spray by security officers.

“Nothing has modified,” the group wrote to Infantino. “Iranian women remain locked out of our beautiful game, and we’re systematically repressed after we attempt to enter stadiums.” The group accused Infantino and FIFA of allowing a “gross human rights violation” to occur with its “protection and approval.”

Several of the country’s most famous players, including Ali Daei — for years the leading scorer in international soccer history — have criticized the federal government each for Amini’s death and the next repression of protests. “Solve the issues of the Iranian people slightly than using repression, violence and arrests,” Daei wrote on Instagram.

One of the outstanding soccer voices to talk out has been Ali Karimi, once of Bayern Munich and arguably probably the most successful Iranian player of all time. Karimi, now 43, has for days used his social media feeds — including his Instagram account, which has almost 13 million followers — to criticize the federal government; to share footage of the protests and the violent response of the police; and even to advise his followers on circumvent blocks on Iranian web access.

Government officials and their allies have called for Karimi to be arrested, and it has been reported that state television is under instructions not to say either him or his former teammate, Daei, by name.

On Monday night, Karimi’s house within the Tehran suburb of Lavasan was seized by the authorities, with a big concrete block placed at its entrance. Other properties were also reported to have been “sealed.” In response, greater than one million Iranians added their names to a petition circulating on social media that said, “I stand with Ali Karimi.”

Karimi, now believed to be within the United Arab Emirates, responded on Instagram that “a house without soil is worthless.”

His successors on the national team say they’ve not been in a position to be quite so outspoken. Sardar Azmoun, a striker with the German side Bayer Leverkusen, suggested in an Instagram post that “national team rules” prevented players from expressing their views on the protest before insisting that he would willingly “sacrifice” his place on the World Cup for “one hair on the heads of Iranian women.”

A variety of other players posted similar messages. A couple of hours later, they’d all been deleted. Some players “blacked out” their social media accounts, while Azmoun — referred to as the Iranian Messi and widely considered his country’s best player — removed all imagery from his Instagram feed for several days. When images reappeared on Wednesday, the account featured a fastidiously worded message of support for Iran’s women.

The unease throughout the national team — which has spent the past two weeks in Austria on a pre-World Cup training camp — became clear before a game with Senegal on Tuesday. On the request of the Iranian authorities, no fans had been allowed to access the stadium, though a gaggle of protesters had gathered outside. Because the Iranian anthem played, and the protesters shouts carried through the air, the players remained impassive, the flag on their jerseys hidden beneath thick black coats.

The country’s authorities have insisted that they’ll “take motion against the celebrities who fire up the riots,” the INSA news agency reported, attributing the comments to Tehran’s provincial governor, Mohsen Mansouri.

On Thursday, they followed through on the threat. State news agencies confirmed that Hossein Mahini, a defender who had been a part of Iran’s squad on the 2014 World Cup and had most recently been playing for Saipa, a second-division team in Tehran, had been arrested for “supporting and inspiring riots on his social media pages.”

About 24 hours later, Azmoun was back on Instagram. In a recent post that was each a subtle challenge to the national team’s gag order and a signal of his solidarity, he posted a picture of Mahini underneath a big blue heart.

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