To Sing Or Not To Sing: Iran’s Dilemma Before High-Voltage Game Against USA In The World Cup

Iran’s World Cup campaign has been eventful. On Tuesday, it will get even more interesting when they square up against a none too avuncular Uncle Sam.

Iran captain Ehsan Hajsafi, at a presser, offered support to the families that suffered in Iran.

You wouldn’t want to be Ehsan Hajsafi right now. 

The Iranian football captain and his team angered their government by not singing the national anthem before their World Cup opener against England.  

They were doing a noble thing, protesting the reportedly custodial death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, and other government atrocities.

But in the next game, they toed the government line and sang the anthem, even though grudgingly. 

Now, their fans, who had praised the players’ heroism earlier, jeered them. 

In this heated, divided climate, Hajsafi and Co will take on their bitter political rivals, USA, on Tuesday.  

The two sides have started brawling already. 

Uncle Sam, in the form of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), changed Iran’s flag on the USSF social media platforms to show support for protesters in Iran. In response, Iran’s state media wanted organisers to expel the US from the World Cup. 

To sing or not to sing

Yes, the World Cup is a football tournament. Equally, it is a news channel and the UN General Assembly. It is Twitter. It is Tahrir Square and Burari Ground where protestors can make a point. 

And so, as the Iranian team lined up for their first match of the tournament against England, the players defiantly sealed their lips as the national anthem played. It was a courageous way of registering their anger against their hardline regime, which has been coming down brutally against protestors and rebels. According to reports, over 400 dissidents have been killed and 16,800 others arrested.

The World Cup was not even the first time that Iran’s footballers or athletes spoke up against their government. The nation’s beach football, water polo and basketball teams also boycotted the national anthem. In September, for their friendly against Senegal, the football team wore black jackets over their national jerseys.

It is not clear whose decision it was that Iran would continue with the national anthem protest at the World Cup. But captain Hajsafi did not shy away from criticizing what was happening in his country. 

"Before anything else, I would like to express my condolences to all of the bereaved families in Iran," Hajsafi said at the start of a press conference. "They should know that we are with them, we support them and we sympathise with them. We cannot deny the conditions - the conditions in my country are not good and the players know it also. We are here but it does not mean that we should not be their voice, or we must not respect them.”

However, the issue is complex and players themselves have been in a dilemma about mixing politics with their primary responsibility, which is football. 
For example, before the England game, Alireza Jahanbaksh was irked by a question about the team’s plans for the national anthem. “I assume you are probably part of the English media and I’m going to start with this: We are here for our duty and our duty is to play football,” he said.

Adding to the pressure

The players’ internal conflicts, combined with the reactions that their moves and statements cause, intensifies the already crushing pressure on them. 

"You don't even imagine behind the scenes what these kids have been living in the last few days, just because they want to express themselves as footballers," said Carlos Queiroz, Iran’s Portuguese coach. "It is not right to come to this World Cup and ask them to do things that are not their responsibility. They want to bring pride and joy for the people [through football].  

"Let the kids play the game. Because this is what they're looking for. They wanted to represent the country, to represent the people, as any other national team that are here. And all the national teams, there are issues at home."

Former England striker Gary Lineker praised Iran’s national anthem stand in their game against England. "It was a powerful and very, very significant gesture.

Football is trying to use its power for good," he said. But on Tuesday, when Iran play USA, it’s fair to assume that other issues, however serious, will be kept aside. All power will be used for victory.