Iran’s World Cup defeat to the United States was met by cheers and celebrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Tuesday evening, as protesters hailed the country’s exit from the tournament as a blow to the ruling regime.
The nation was eliminated from the tournament in Qatar after its 1-0 loss on Tuesday, ending a campaign overshadowed by anti-government protests that have raged for months at home.
But there are concerns about the safety of the Iranian players returning home across the Persian Gulf, after the team initially refused to sing Iran’s national anthem before their first game in an apparent show of solidarity with demonstrators. The families of the team were also threatened with imprisonment and torture in advance of the game, a source involved in the security of the games.
People in several Iranian cities celebrated from inside their homes and residential buildings moments after the final whistle, which came in the early hours of Wednesday local time, while videos posted on social media showed people honking their car horns, chanting and whistling.
“I’m happy, this is the government lost to the people,” one witness to celebrations in a town in the Kurdish region, which CNN is not naming for security concerns, told CNN on Wednesday.
The Norwegian-based Iranian rights group Hengaw posted several videos of similar scenes. “People in Paveh are celebrating Iran’s national team losing to America in the World Cup in Qatar, chanting ‘Down with Jash (traitors),” Hengav said in a post.
Demonstrations have rocked Iran for months, sparking a deadly clampdown by authorities. The national uprising was first sparked by the death of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, who died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s moral police. Since then, protesters across Iran have gathered around a series of complaints against the regime.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Turk, said the country is in a “full-fledged human rights crisis” as the authorities crack down on the protests.
Football has become an increasingly heated flashpoint in recent weeks, with the World Cup throwing a global spotlight on the turmoil in the country.
And fans following the team in Qatar have become increasingly conflicted about their support. “Our team has been hijacked,” longtime fan Farshad Soheil told CNN. “It no longer represents the people of Iran.”
Soheili said Iran’s regime had managed to politicize and weaponize the team, and was critical of the players for not making a bigger statement about the protests. “It was a wasted historic opportunity,” Soheili said.
Before Tuesday’s game, many supporters said that they did not want Iran to win. “The reason is not because of football reason, [but] For political reasons, another fan called Farshid, who withheld his last name for security reasons, told CNN in Doha.
“I have mixed emotion(s) and feeling(s),” Fershid said. “I am a passionate supporter of Iran but today unfortunately I cannot be a supporter of the national team because of the current situation and the government trying to hijack the game and sport and use it as a platform to buy credibility and to show that everything is normal (with) what is happening in Iran.
Fershid said many pro-regime supporters also attended Iran’s World Cup games in Doha and created a very tense environment for other Iranian fans by attempting to interfere with their interviews with the media.
Iran’s national side would have progressed to the second round of the World Cup with a win or draw against the US.
“I’m really sorry on behalf of our players, our group, that we couldn’t get our chance to qualify for the next round,” midfielder Said Ezatolah told reporters after the game. “I hope that our fans and our people in Iran forgive us. And I just feel sorry, that’s it.”
The team’s return will be closely watched amid fears the players could face retaliation for a perceived brief show of support for the protests, which drew international attention and praise from human rights groups.
The country’s flag and national anthem were rejected by protesters as symbols of the current regime. And after Iranian players refused to sing Iran’s national anthem in their opener against England on November 21, a source involved in the security of the games told CNN that the players were called to a meeting with members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. (IRGC).
The source said they were told their families would face “violence and torture” if they did not sing the national anthem or if they joined any political protest against the Tehran regime.
The players sang the anthem on Tuesday, and before their second game against Wales last Friday, which saw Iran win 2-0.
Hours before the game kicked off on Tuesday, Iranian authorities said a former member of the national soccer team, Parviz Boroumand — who was arrested this month over criticism of the government — had been released on bail, according to the state news agency. IRNA.
Borrowmand was arrested in mid-November during protests in Tehran, Iranian media outlets reported. Earlier on Tuesday, Iranian-Kurdish footballer Voria Ghafouri was also released on bail.
Iranian football legend Ali Karimi, sometimes referred to as the “Asian Maradona,” meanwhile said he had received death threats from his family members after vocally supporting protests.
The government described him as one of the “main leaders” of the demonstrations, and issued a warrant for his arrest in early October, accusing him of “harmonizing with the enemy” and “encouraging riots,” according to Iran’s Supreme Council of the Judiciary. , both charges punishable by death.