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Iran’s football team refused to sing their national anthem at their opening World Cup game against England on Monday, a gesture widely seen as a pledge of support for anti-government protests back home.
The squad, known as Team Melli, has been at the center of criticism and controversy over participation in the tournament and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had earlier warned athletes not to “disrespect” the country.
The team remained silent throughout the playing of Iran’s national anthem. During the match fans could at times be heard shouting “shameless! shameless!” in Persian at the players.
The side went on to suffer their biggest ever defeat in a World Cup match, losing 6-2 to England.
In Tehran, anti-government chants and slogans including “death to the dictator” could be heard in one central district of the capital toward the end of the match. A dissident media channel on Telegram said people had also taken to the streets in the areas of Yusufabad and Pasdaran to cheer the team’s loss. Bloomberg is unable to verify the reports.
Internet access in Tehran was also heavily restricted almost immediately after the match ended. Internet watchdog NetBlocks confirmed a “major disruption” to online services in Iran and said web access had been cut off for many users.
Iran’s players have been caught between officials who want them to show loyalty to the country’s embattled Islamic establishment and the team’s mainly young fans who have urged the footballers to show solidarity with the protests over the death of Mahsa Amini -- a 22-year-old woman who died in police custody in Tehran in September after allegedly violating Islamic dress codes.
Monday’s match also coincided with an escalation in violence in several Kurdish cities in western Iran where rights groups said at least 13 people had died over the past 24 hours amid a crackdown on protests by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and fresh air strikes on Kurdish targets in northern Iraq.
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Historically Team Melli has been celebrated by Iranians across political divides for triumphing against much stronger international sides and unifying the country.
Past appearances at World Cup tournaments have triggered huge street celebrations in Iran, often coinciding with moments of geopolitical tension or crises, such as their 1998 World Cup group stage win against the US.
Their popularity has also been used by the government for propaganda purposes and the team has faced criticism from protesters for not speaking out.
The team came under criticism following a Nov. 14 photo opportunity with President Ebrahim Raisi, when at least two team players were shown bowing their heads in deference to the hardline cleric. The images went viral on Twitter, spurring outrage.
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Other top Iranian footballers and athletes have supported the protests. Iranian soccer star Ali Daei -- one of the most capped players in the world -- has boycotted the World Cup and stayed at home to show solidarity with the demonstrators. Last week, former goalkeeper Parviz Boroumand was arrested for taking part in protests, state media reported.
At other sporting events, Iranian teams have also taken a stand. The men’s water polo team refused to sing during the Islamic Republic’s anthem at an event on Nov. 8. Iranian sportswomen have competed unveiled at international tournaments, for the first time in decades, drawing the ire of authorities.
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--With assistance from David Hellier.
(Updates with internet restrictions and latest developments on protests in Iran.)
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