BarcelonaThe match between England and Iran was not at all funny to FIFA, which was determined to keep politics away from the stadiums. England tried unsuccessfully to get their captain Harry Kane to wear an armband in the colors of the rainbow flag in support of the LGBTI community. And the English players continued to kneel before the start of the match, as they have been doing for months in their league, as a symbol against racism. But the government of their rival, Iran, a country that learned to play football thanks to Englishmen living in Persia to take its oil, were even more worried than FIFA.
Since arriving in Qatar to play in the World Cup, Sardar Azmoun (Gonbad-e Kavus, Iran, 1995) has not spoken. He appears with his head down, perhaps with a shy laugh as he chases the ball in practice. Little else. He knows millions of people are watching him. Having become one of the biggest stars of the Iranian national team and the second most expensive player in this country since arriving from the German Bayer Leverkusen, Azmoun decided a few days ago that it was necessary to make a gesture to support the thousands of compatriots who were protesting in the streets against the Islamist regime that has ruled Iran since 1979. He took to social media to do so, with a post on Instagram saying: “Because of the restrictive laws, I can’t say anything But we will never forget what is happening, shame!”. The message lasted a few minutes. In fact, the player’s profile disappeared, although the image capture of the message quickly circulated from phone to phone, from country to country, from Iran to states such as Germany or the United States, where Azmoun is a hero among the thousands of Iranians who live there.
The controversy came just in the days when the Iranian coach, the Portuguese Carlos Queiroz, had to give the final list of players called up to be in the World Cup. Queiroz’s decision was delayed amid rumors of pressure from Iranian authorities to delist players such as Azmoun, who may become mouthpieces for the protesters. It was three days of intrigue in which the Bayer Leverkusen striker reclaimed his social media profile and posted a cryptic message apologizing to his teammates, but appeared unrepentant about making it clear that he opposition to the government. It was a way of bowing down to be able to be at the World Cup, while asking the fans not to insult the international players who preferred not to talk about politics. And Azmoun entered the call-up list, although he has been a substitute against the English. Officially, for some inconvenience. In the end, he played the last 10 minutes.
Hundreds of dead
Iran is experiencing tense days following the death of hundreds of protesters who took part in the protests that have rocked the country in the past two months, following the killing of Mahsa Amini by the morality police for not wearing the veil well put The family of Amini, a woman of Kurdish origin, said she was brutally tortured from the moment she was forced into the police van. Security forces said he suffered a heart attack, but thousands of people did not swallow it. The crackdown has led to hundreds of deaths and, in fact, a new law authorizes the courts to sentence protesters arrested these days to death. The violence would have left more than 400 dead and iconic scenes, such as protesters burning Khomeini’s house museum in his hometown or thousands of women burning their veils. Many athletes have shown their support for the protesters, with players from the beach soccer or volleyball team making the gesture of cutting off a piece of their hair, one of the gestures that has gone global against the regime.
Iran, one of the Asian countries with the most sporting tradition and the most passion for football, debuts against the English with their eyes on their players, who have mostly opted for silence as a measure of protest. Since there is no democracy to speak of, they remain silent and refuse to sing the anthem. In the last two World Cup warm-up friendlies, against Senegal and Nicaragua, only two of the eleven starting players sang the national anthem, Vahid Amiri and Mehdi Torabi. The others were silent. In fact, they didn’t take off their black tracksuits until just before they played, to cover the Federation crest. Asked at a press conference, captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh explained that “we are united, thinking of giving joy to our people in the World Cup. Everyone lives things in their own way and does what they believe.” Queiroz, asked by the foreign press, tried not to get wet, but in a press conference he ended up getting stuck with a British journalist who asked him the reasons why he hasn’t said anything about the situation that the Iran. “How much money are you paying me to answer you? What you need to do is to investigate how immigrants are treated in the UK” Etzibar said. Against England, they all refused to sing the anthem. And the stadium, full of Iranians living abroad, booed the name of Vahid Amiri, who has defended the regime, cheering that of Sardar Azmoun. In addition, the anthem has been whistled, as it is the one imposed by the Islamists, an anthem that the opponents do not recognize.
Ali Karimi, a condemned hero
With more than 80 million inhabitants, Iran is living key days. In fact, international exporter Sosha Makani, who lives abroad, went so far as to ask FIFA to expel his country from the World Cup to punish it for the crackdown on protesters. Ali Karimi, regarded as one of the greatest football players in history, took to social media to ask the team’s players to “decide what part of history they want to be”, adding: “We cannot be silent when they kill our young people.” Karimi, who played more than 120 games for the national team during an 18-year career that saw him defend the Bayern shirt, now lives in Dubai, which has allowed him to be critical of the government without being arrested. Now, he has been sentenced in absentia to a prison term and the Islamist guard destroyed his house and toppled a statue of him on a football field in his hometown. He, on the networks, does not stop posting messages demanding that democracy reach his country.
Now, all eyes are on Sardar Azmoun. At 27 years old, for many he is Karimi’s heir, with a very high goals per game average. Azmoun has always been critical of the treatment of women in her country, partly because she comes from a family where women always had their say. Azmoun is ethnic Turkman, one of the many ethnic groups in a multi-national state like Iran. Born near the border between Iran and Turkmenistan, he is the son of a volleyball player, a sport that excites him. In fact, once he made money from football he bought the women’s volleyball club in his hometown, and invested money that has allowed the team to reach the First Division. Azmoun left his country at the age of 17 after shining with the youth team. He was signed by the Russian Rubin Kazan, where he trained the Turkmen Kurban Berdiev, with whom he communicated in the Turkmen language and spent hours talking about one of the great passions of this people in central Asia, horses. Azmoun is a horse owner and has raced, and has put the horses in the hands of his mother. When in 2018 criticism of his lackluster performance at the World Cup in Russia caused his mother to be unwell, the striker even left the national team for a few months. “My people are more important,” he made clear. This year, after a decade winning titles in Russia with Rubin or Zenit, he left for Germany’s Bayer Leverkusen. In the stands of Bayern’s stadium, many Iranians living on German soil have been seen cheering him on alongside banners against the Islamist government.
In fact, when he scored in the friendly against Senegal played in Austria, he did not celebrate the goal. And he ended up taking selfies with fans opposed to the Islamist government. And in a new defiant gesture, he posted a new message on the networks that was not long published: “I can’t stay silent, and if the punishment is to be kicked out of the national team, it’s a small price to pay for a single flake of an Iranian woman’s hair. They should be ashamed of how easily they can murder a person. Long live Iranian women.” The message, referring to the lock of hair for which Mahsa Amini was killed, was published for a short time. There are those who think that his substitution would be a consequence of these messages.