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

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Iran’s national soccer team has historically been viewed as a representative of the country’s people, not of the Islamic Republic’s government.

Team Melli, because the squad is thought, has been embraced as an apolitical force, and as a secular passion that reflected a certain ideal, the Iran of everyone’s imagination. For years, the team has brought unity and joy to a fractious nation. Support for it has been effectively unconditional.

Until now.

Because the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the primary time the world’s biggest sporting event has been held within the Middle East, the Iranian team finds itself in an unfamiliar, polarizing position.

Team Melli has develop into ensnared in the interior politics of Iran, where an ongoing national rebellion led by women and young people is demanding an end to clerical rule, and searching for more equitable treatment and increased personal freedoms. The protests were spurred by the mid-September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, a young woman who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on charges of violating a law requiring head coverings for ladies.

Some activists inside and outside Iran have called for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to ban Iran from competing within the World Cup. They cite the federal government’s crackdown on protesters, which has left greater than 250 killed, but in addition longstanding soccer grievances like limited stadium access for ladies to observe matches, and more overtly political complaints, like Iran’s providing of weaponized drones to Russia to assist its invasion of Ukraine.

A ban seems highly unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter to all of the World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to concentrate on soccer ahead of politics. But support for Team Melli is now divided even at home on this emotional and visceral moment, analysts, fans, journalists, and former coaches and players said.

The divide was clear within the wounded voice of Jalal Talebi, 80, who coached his native Iran on the 1998 World Cup in France, where he guided Team Melli to its most vital victory ever, over the USA. (Iran is once more in the identical first-round group as the USA in Qatar.) Talebi called soccer “a part of life” in an interview, but said that he supports the protests and believes it’s “not the time” to take part in the World Cup. He said he may decline to function a commentator for international television, and will not even watch Iran’s games from his home within the Bay Area.

“How could I feel to observe football when my neighbor, my brother, my countryman and countrywoman are in such a foul situation?” Talebi said.

Mohammad Motamedi, 44, a preferred Iranian vocalist, was chosen to be Team Melli’s official singer for this World Cup but declined, writing on his Instagram page, “under the circumstances, I don’t even feel like talking, let alone singing.”

Keyvan, 47, a lawyer from Tehran, who asked that only his first name be used, canceled his tickets, flights and hotel accommodations for Iran’s group matches in Qatar, saying he had a change of heart due to protests and the federal government’s violent crackdown.

But other fans said they fully supported Iran’s participation. Ali Gholizadeh, 37, a postdoctoral researcher from Mashhad, said that soccer is one in all the remaining joys for individuals who feel squeezed by repression and international economic sanctions.

“Taking away the World Cup from us,” Gholizadeh said, could be “collective punishment.”

Even players throughout the national team appear divided on whether, or how forcefully, they need to show support for the protesters.

Based on a report on Twitter and Telegram by an independent journalist in Iran, the team’s star forwards, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Terami, got right into a heated argument in September at a training camp in Austria. The dispute reportedly took place after Azmoun posted on Instagram that “national team rules” suppressed players from expressing their views in regards to the national protests, while also saying that he was willing to “sacrifice” his place within the World Cup “for one hair on the heads of Iranian women.” Azmoun briefly scrubbed his Instagram feed, then resumed with more circumspect postings.

Analysts said that some fans have accused players of being co-opted by the federal government, their loyalty secured with real-estate deals and imported luxury cars. Others accused the players of appearing insensitive on the Austrian training camp in the times after the death of Amini, by celebrating too excitedly after an exhibition victory over Uruguay and holding a thirtieth birthday celebration for goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

“The joy and joy we all the time felt for soccer and the World Cup is nonexistent this time around,” said Amir Ali, 54, an engineer in Tehran, who asked that his last name not be used. “We don’t care, and a few people say if Team Melli loses, it’s a defeat for the regime.”

Those more sympathetic to the players note that they’re undoubtedly facing enormous pressure — and even perhaps threats from the federal government — to not side publicly with the protesters as they seek to advance their careers in a tournament held just once every 4 years. Their concentration will certainly be tested. And their every move will proceed to be heavily scrutinized.

Protests by fans holding aloft photos of Amini and chanting “Women, Life, Freedom,” the mantra of the rebellion, are widely expected in Qatar, inside and outdoors the stadiums. During a cupboard meeting on Oct. 30, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said he was nervous for Team Melli, and that he had asked the foreign ministry to coordinate with Qatar — Iran’s closest Arab ally — to forestall “problems from surfacing.”

Inside Iran, if past World Cups are any indication, the federal government could restrict large public gatherings, where fans gather to observe matches and attend street celebrations.

Some Iranians have called on Team Melli (and its World Cup opponents, which also include England and Wales) to indicate solidarity with the protest movement while in Qatar. This might take the shape of subtle gestures, comparable to wristbands, or more overt one like messages written on T-shirts or jerseys, or refusing to sing Iran’s national anthem or have fun goals in its games.

Players, though, could also be growing more emboldened. On Nov. 2, the powerful club team Esteghlal, which incorporates several prospective World Cup players, won Iran’s Super Cup, but Amir Arsalan Motahari, who scored the winning goal, didn’t have fun. As a substitute, he shed a tear captured in a photograph. One other player, Mehdi Ghayedi, wrote the name of a young fan who was shot and killed by security forces within the northern city of Babol on his jersey.

Afterward, Esteghlal’s players kept their arms somberly crossed in the course of the trophy ceremony. The team’s official Twitter page declared that “nobody is completely satisfied” above a video of the muted postgame ceremony.

One player, Siavash Yazdani, told Iranian broadcast media that it was “a bitter victory during bitter times” and dedicated the match “to the ladies of Iran and the families of all of the victims.”

A day later, Azmoun, the Team Melli star, posted “the honorable Esteghlal” on his Instagram page with a blue heart, the team color, against a black screen of mourning.

State television cut away from its live feed during Esteghlal’s victory ceremony. That would suggest that Iran will broadcast live World Cup matches with similar caution, including a brief delay to avoid airing or showing stadium protests and, perhaps, orchestrated crowd noise as a substitute of actual sounds from the stadiums.

“Athletes don’t should be activists, but they need to be patriots,” said Haleh, 50, an electrical engineer from Tehran, who asked that her last name not be used. “It’s called Team Melli, in any case, meaning it’s of the people and for the nation.”

Jack Begg contributed research.

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