Defender Esan Haysafi became the first member of the Iranian national team to speak at the World Cup in Qatar on Sunday, in apparent support of anti-government protests at home, saying players should speak out for those who are suffering.
The death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of the country’s morality police has sparked more than two months of protests in Iran in one of the boldest challenges to its clerical leadership since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Iranian national team has been in the spotlight as it prepares for the World Cup, with expectations to see if the players will use the football game as a platform to express solidarity with the protest movement.
“They should know that we are with them. We support them. We sympathize with their condition,” Hajsafi, who plays for AEK Athens, told a news conference.
“We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right, our people are not happy,” he said. “We’re here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak up for them, or that we shouldn’t respect them.”
A wave of unrest erupted after the death in September of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini in the custody of morality police for wearing what was deemed “inappropriate” clothing. The Iranian government has blamed foreign enemies for the crisis.
Some Iranian athletes made gestures that protesters viewed as support, including not singing the national anthem or celebrating on-field victories.
As of Friday, 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest, including 58 minors, according to the radical news agency HRANA.
Other members of the team have so far avoided discussing politics in public.
Players Karim Ansarifard and Morteza Pouraliganji declined to answer questions Friday about their solidarity with Iranian women. On Thursday, midfielder Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who plays for Dutch club Feyenoord, said such problems were a tactic to distract the team.
Bayer Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun, however, was selected for the squad despite publicly supporting protests in the past.
Some activists objected that the national team was not doing enough and called on Iranians to gather in the main squares of Iranian towns on Monday night.
“Whatever the result of the hateful Islamic Republic team, we will gather in the streets to celebrate the Islamic Republic team’s defeat while chanting revolutionary slogans,” said a post on social media that was not confirmed by Reuters.
Video on social media showed a flag of the Iranian national team being burned in Tehran.
Haisafi said that it is undeniable that the situation is not good, and hope that the national team can beat England in Monday’s Group B opener and bring some happiness to people.
“Everything we have comes from them, we have to fight, we have to do everything we can, score goals and represent the people,” he said.
“I hope things will change with people’s expectations.”