DOHA, Qatar—Fights take courage. Before England and Iran’s second day match at the World Cup the talk was all about the pro-LGBTQ armbands England and six other European nations wanted to wear, and FIFA’s ruthless power play to stop them. It mattered, all that. It was telling, in several ways.
On this day, though, bravery belonged to Iranians. When Iran’s anthem was played the Iranian players stood arm in arm, and did not sing. Their faces were portraits of gravity: you could watch again and again and see seriousness, determination, maybe even apprehension, weight. The anthem, “The National Anthem of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” was only adopted in 1989; it is not recognized by many opponents of the current regime. As it played, many of the Iranian fans in the building appeared to boo and jeer, as if to drown it out.
You could have written a novel about those faces of those men, and the silence they chose. Iran has been crushing a popular, women-led uprising for weeks now, ever since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by police Sept. 16 after not wearing a hijab. Iran’s theocratic government has unleashed a bloody campaign of repression, and it hasn’t stopped. The day before the match, Iranian captain Ehsan Hajsafi said something extraordinary.
“We have to accept the conditions in our country are not right, and our people are not happy,” Hajsafi said in a team press conference. “Whatever we have is from them. We have to fight. We have to perform and score some goals to present the brave people of Iran with a result. I hope conditions change as to the expectations of the people.”
Then Iran was crushed. Its goalkeeper was concussed in the first few minutes, and England roared to a 6-2 victory. It must have been bitter. Iran’s longtime coach, Carlos Queiroz, said his team was under enormous pressure, and he blamed the fans for being, essentially, a distraction.
“All Iranians are welcome in the stadium,” said Queiroz. “They have the right to criticize the team, but those that come to disturb the team with issues not just about football are not welcome … Everybody knows the circumstances, the environment of my players, is not ideal in terms of commitment and concentration , and they are affected by the issue. They are human beings.
“You don’t know what these kids have been living the last days, just because they want to express themselves as players. Whatever they do or say, they want to kill them. Let them represent the country and play for the people.”
But when Iran scored its first goal to make it 5-1, those Iranian fans summoned the loudest cheer in the stadium all day. They were there to support the players. Iranian players, and Queiroz, are just in a near-impossible situation. That the players didn’t sing was almost all they could do.
If that was impossible, though, the armband situation wasn’t. Seven European nations — England, Wales, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands — had pledged to have their captains wear rainbow-heart One Love armbands in support of the LGBTQ community, during a World Cup in a nation that criminalizes homosexuality. They tried to do a small moral thing, the decent thing.
FIFA crushed it. At the last moment, after discussions that had included fines to the respective football associations, they threatened yellow cards, which would have put the captains of all seven teams in a position where one bad decision could mean missing a World Cup match. More, the Belgian newspaper Nieuwsblad reported that FIFA forced Belgium to remove the word LOVE from their rainbow-accented away kits.
The seven nations folded, and too easily. The captains wore FIFA armbands instead, that read, Hashtag Football Unites The World? It was terribly weak.
Everything is a choice. Homosexuality is officially criminalized in Qatar, as well as in countries throughout Africa, the Middle East — including, of course, Iran — and Southeast Asia; Russia and China harshened anti-LGBTQ laws in the last decade, and American conservatives are pushing hard in the same direction: the mass shooting at Colorado Springs drag show this weekend was a clear symptom of that recent push.
And despite the fact that the nations had alerted FIFA to this in September, FIFA pushed hardest at the end, and it felt very much of a piece with the defining divide at this World Cup. FIFA had already pleaded for teams to “focus on the football,” and FIFA president Gianni Infantino took an explicitly anti-Europe stance to defend Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, and human rights policies. Infantino had said that the criticism of the World Cup and Qatar had him feeling like a marginalized group; among other things, Infantino said, today I feel gay. It must have been a passing feeling.
English players did take a knee before kickoff as a general gesture of anti-discrimination, which has become relatively common in English football, and in the face of racism against some of the team’s players, it matters. But at a World Cup where the emir of Qatar praised diversity and one of FIFA’s official armbands says Hashtag No Discrimination, it didn’t land the same. To England and those six other nations, clearly, the matches mattered most.
And then the Iranians didn’t sing, despite their impossible situation, and that was courage. It’s not that this World Cup is a clash between Middle East and the West, precisely; it’s that there are constant struggles between visions regarding rights and freedoms and quality, and international sports is used as a tool in that struggle. The Europeans did what they decided they could do, and the Iranians did what they decided they could do. You could see which one was harder, and which one cost. And you could see which one mattered more.
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