Iranian protesters celebrate World Cup defeat, as fears surround players’ return



CNN

Iran’s World Cup defeat by the United States was met with cheers and celebrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Tuesday night, as protesters hailed Iran’s exit from the tournament as a blow to the ruling regime.

The nation was eliminated from the tournament in Qatar after losing 1-0 on Tuesday, ending a campaign overshadowed by months of anti-government protests at home.

But there are concerns about the safety of Iranian players returning home via the Persian Gulf, after the team initially refused to sing Iran’s national anthem before their first game in an apparent show of solidarity with the protesters. A source concerned with the security of the games said that the team’s parents were also threatened with imprisonment and torture before the match.

People in several Iranian cities celebrated from inside their homes and apartment buildings moments after the final whistle, which came in the early hours of Wednesday local time, while videos posted on social media showed people honking their car horns, cheering and whistling.

People in Iran celebrated on Tuesday night the national team's defeat by the United States.

A witness to the celebrations in a city in the Kurdish region, whom CNN did not name for security reasons, told CNN on Wednesday: “I am happy, this government is losing to the people.”

Norway-based Iranian human rights group Hengau posted several videos of similar scenes. Hengaw said in a post, “People in Paveh are celebrating Iran’s loss to America at the World Cup in Qatar, chanting ‘Down with Jash (meaning traitors)’.”

Demonstrations rocked Iran for several months, prompting a deadly crackdown by the authorities. The nationwide uprising was first sparked by the killing of Mahsa (also known as Zina) Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s morality police. Since then, protesters across Iran have coalesced over a range of grievances with the regime.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has said the country is going through a “full-blown human rights crisis” as the authorities crack down on protests.

Football has become an increasingly hot spot in recent weeks, with the World Cup highlighting the turmoil within the country.

And fans who follow the team in Qatar have become increasingly conflicted about their support. “Our team has been kidnapped,” Farshad Sohail, a longtime fan of CNN, told CNN. He no longer represents the people of Iran.

Al-Suhaili said that the Iranian regime had succeeded in politicizing the team and turning it into a weapon, and criticized the players for not making a bigger statement regarding the protests. “It was a historic missed opportunity,” said Suhaili.

Before Tuesday’s game, many fans said they didn’t want Iran to win. “It’s not because of football, [but] For political reasons, another fan named Farshid — whose last name has been withheld for security reasons — told CNN in Doha.

“I have mixed feelings with feelings,” Farshid said. “I am an ardent supporter of Iran, but today unfortunately I cannot be a supporter of the national team because of the current situation that is happening and the government is trying to hijack the game and sport and use it as a platform to buy credibility and show that everything is normal (with) what is happening in Iran.”

Farshid said that many supporters of the regime had also attended Iran’s World Cup matches in Doha and had created a very tense environment for other Iranian fans by trying to interfere with their interviews with the media.

The Iranian national team would have reached the second round of the World Cup with a win or a draw against the United States, but the team will now return home after being knocked out in the group stage.

“I am really sorry on behalf of our players and our group that we could not get our chance to qualify for the next round,” midfielder Saeed Ezzatullah told reporters after the match. “I hope our fans and people in Iran will forgive me. And I just feel sorry, that’s all.”

The team’s return will be closely watched amid fears players could face punishment for what is seen as a short show of support for the protests, which has drawn international attention and praise from human rights groups.

The demonstrators rejected the country’s flag and national anthem as symbols of the current regime. After the Iranian players refused to sing Iran’s national anthem in the opening match against England on November 21, a source involved in gaming security told CNN that the players were summoned to a meeting with members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. (Iran’s Revolutionary Guards).

The source said they were told that their families would be subjected to “violence and torture” if they did not sing the national anthem or if they joined any political protest against the Tehran regime.

The players sang the national anthem on Tuesday, and ahead of their second match against Wales last Friday, which saw Iran win 2-0.

Hours before kick-off on Tuesday, Iranian authorities said a former member of the national soccer team, Parviz Borumand – who was arrested this month for criticizing the government – has been released on bail, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Iranian media reported that Borumand had been arrested in mid-November during protests in Tehran. Earlier on Tuesday, Iranian Kurdish footballer Furiya Ghafouri was released on bail.

Meanwhile, Iranian soccer legend Ali Karimi, sometimes referred to as the “Asian Maradona”, said he received death threats through his family members after he publicly supported the protests.

The government called him one of the “main leaders” of the demonstrations, and issued an arrest warrant for him in early October on charges of “according to the enemy” and “encouraging riots,” according to Iran’s Supreme Judicial Council. Both charges carry the death penalty.

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