Los Angeles, California, United States For years, cheering on the Iran national football team has been a way for some Iranian Americans to celebrate their homeland without supporting the ecclesiastical government that has ruled Iran since the 1979 revolution.
But this year, as Iran competes in the 2022 World Cup, the politics are on the pitch as players and fans replay the protests sweeping Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being detained by the morality police of the country. in September.
In Los Angeles, home to one of the world’s largest Persian diaspora communities, feelings about Iran’s participation in the World Cup are mixed, with some spectators expressing disillusionment with the Iran national team, also known as Team Melli.
“It’s safe to say everything is politicized,” said Benjamin Radd, an expert on Iranian politics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “Sport has entered the fray and you see protests from prominent athletes, and these are forums for global attention.”
In Los Angeles’ Westwood neighborhood, an area with a large Iranian-American community, Farsi is widely spoken and there are posters depicting Amini or popular protest movement slogans such as “Women, Life, Freedom” everywhere.
But there is no enthusiasm among the residents for the upcoming game against the United States.
“During the last World Cup, our restaurant was full of revelers,” says Ranna, who moved to the US from Tehran in 2005 and works at a Persian restaurant in Westwood. She asked to use only her first name due to the sensitive nature of the protests.
“But this year it is different. The government kills people on the street. What is there to celebrate?”
A forum for protests
In Iran, the government has reacted harshly to the protests following Amini’s death. More than 400 people have been killed and nearly 18,000 arrested as the government attempts to break its system of clerical rule in years, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that monitors the unrest.
Last week, the United Nations voted to launch an investigation into possible human rights violations by the government, with a focus on violence against women and children.
Some Iranian celebrities and athletes have expressed their support for the protesters. And during the World Cup, Iranian fans have also used the tournament as a forum to draw attention to the demonstrations and government response.
During their team’s opening match against England, Iranian fans chanted slogans like “Say her name! Mahsa Amini!” and “Zan, Zindagi, Azadi”, which translates to “Women, Life, Freedom”.
The Iran national team itself remained silent in protest while playing the national anthem of Iran, although they refused to do so in their next game against Wales.
Before the start of the tournament, the captain of the team, Ehsan Hajsafi, said in a press conference that he “wanted to express our condolences to all grieving families in Iran. They need to know that we stand with them and sympathize with them.”
He added: “We’re here, but that doesn’t mean we have to shut up.”
Radd, the UCLA professor, pointed out that Iranian celebrities and athletes are under immense pressure from the government, which sees even mild statements of support for the protests as a threat.
“The government has learned that any act of protest can be a spark,” Radd told Al Jazeera. “And they will impose a price that makes even symbolic acts of defiance an act of incredible courage.”
An athlete – Voria Ghafouri, a Kurdish Iranian footballer and former member of the national team – was recently arrested for spreading “propaganda” following his outspoken support for the protesters. He also expressed solidarity with the Kurdish communities in Iran, where particular crackdowns by the government have been reported. According to Iranian state media, Ghafouri has since been released on bail.
Radd said he has heard members of the Iranian diaspora in Los Angeles express their sympathy for the pressure the Iranian players are under. But they would like to see more solidarity actions from other teams, who do not receive the same punishments for speaking out.
“The regime wants to avoid acts of international spectacle,” Radd said. “But as we see with protests around the world, repression takes a lot of work. There are too many ways to get the message out.”
Shifting views on Iran’s national team
But back in Westwood, some onlookers are less than impressed. Rafi Khazai, a customer who spoke outside a supermarket in Westwood during a visit from Paris, expressed disappointment that the Iran national team had met with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi ahead of the World Cup.
Khazai would have liked to see the team pull out of the tournament altogether.
“In solidarity with the protests, all 11 players should have refused to play,” he said. “If they had resigned, it would have been in the history books. They would have been heroes.”
Pedram Dolatabadi, another shopper who travels nearly an hour from his California residence to buy groceries in the Persian Quarter, expressed his sympathy for the Iranian players, saying they are at serious risk by speaking out.
“I am sure they have been forced and threatened to show pro-regime gestures, such as singing the national anthem,” Dolatabadi told Al Jazeera. “So deep down I don’t see them as sympathizers of the Islamic Republic.”
Dolatabadi added: “I look forward to seeing the whole team stand up against the regime and show solidarity with their people.”
Arash Sobhani, an Iranian activist and musician based in New York City, believes that spectators are more disappointed than ever with the Iranian national team.
“For a while, the national team was everyone’s favorite because they were one of the few ways to cheer for Iran, regardless of your political background,” Sobhani said. “It’s different this time. Gradually, people are starting to feel that this team does not represent the people of Iran.”
Sobhani pointed out that politics has long been present in Iranian football. Iranian women, for example, have been largely banned from football stadiums since 1979. This year’s World Cup has only brought those issues into sharper focus, he said.
“Even if the national team reaches the final, it will not unite the nation,” Sobhani said. Some, he noted, will even cheer for the United States on Tuesday.