أخبار عاجلة

3 young Iranians in Sask. say they love soccer, but won't cheer for their country's team at this World Cup

اخبارالعرب 24-كندا:الخميس 24 نوفمبر 2022 09:05 مساءً As a little boy, Arash spent hours playing soccer with friends on a field close to his home in Tehran, Iran.

The 26-year-old fell in love with the sport when he was seven years old and his passion for the game is still strong today.

"It's the first sport in my country," said Arash, who recently graduated from the University of Saskatchewan.

"There are a lot of people who love football."

In previous years, Arash used to cheer for the Iranian soccer squad, known as Team Melli. It used to be a source of national pride fro Arash, but this year is different.

"My concentration is now on what's happening in Iran and be[ing] the voice of my people," he said earlier this month, before the start of the World Cup in Qatar.

"The first [priority] is not the national team right now, unless they stand with our people and support them."

Arash is one of three Iranians living in Saskatoon that CBC spoke with for this story. CBC is not using their surnames, as they are worried about their family members who still live in Iran.

Arash, 26, is a former student from the University of Saskatchewan. He says people want Team Melli to be the voice of the protesters in Iran. (Theresa Kliem/CBC)

Mass protests in Iran since September

Iran has been gripped by nationwide protests since the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 after she was arrested by the country's morality police for wearing clothes deemed "inappropriate."

On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the situation in Iran "critical," describing a hardening of the authorities' response to protests that have resulted in more than 300 deaths, including more than 40 children, in the past two months.

Arash is not alone with his decision to not support Team Melli at the 2022 World Cup.

University of Saskatchewan student Maryam usually loves soccer. While she primarily cheers for FC Bayern Munich — a team in the German Bundesliga — she said watching the sport is her biggest hobby and it doesn't really matter to her who is playing.

This year though, she has decided not to watch any World Cup games.

"It's very painful to see that your team is there, and you're not going to support them," she said earlier this month.

"Team Melli was always dear to my heart, but this year — although it's about the same players — I see them playing under a flag that do not support us."

Maryam, 29, is a master's student in computer science at the University of Saskatchewan. She says she doesn't watch the World Cup in Qatar for several reasons, including the host country's poor human rights record. (Theresa Kliem/CBC)

Maryam is disappointed that FIFA didn't ban Iran's national team from the competition in Qatar, as the organization did with Russia after that country invaded Ukraine.

Maryam's friend Amir, a University of Saskatchewan student who is equally passionate about the sport, is joining Maryam and Arash in their refusal to cheer for Team Melli at this World Cup.

Soccer is a huge part of the Iranian culture, said Amir, who remembers his father and grandfather always watching the sport in Iran.

But the pain from what's going on in his home country is bigger than his love for the game.

"The situation in Iran, it wasn't really good all the time in the last … 44 years, but at this time it's way different," said Amir, who moved to Saskatoon in 2019.

"People in Iran, they're protesting, they are struggling, they're fighting for freedom."

Iran's soccer team silent during national anthem in Qatar 

Team Melli is playing in Group B at the Fifa World Cup and lost its first game against England with 2-6 on Monday in Doha, Qatar.

But the match was not just about soccer.

Before kickoff, Iran's players declined to sing the national anthem, which was seen as a sign of support for the mass protests back home. The players were solemn and quiet as the anthem was played at Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar.

Men wearing red jerseys stand shoulder to shoulder, arms links, with solemn faces, and children wearing blue jerseys stand in front of them.
Iran's World Cup team declined to sing their national anthem before their opening match Monday. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Maryam and Arash said they understand that Iran's national players are probably under a lot of pressure.

However, refusing to sing the national anthem was not enough, said Maryam.

"I really like the players to go to the field and not play, just stand there," she said on Wednesday.

Arash and other Iranian soccer fans have criticized Team Melli for meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ahead of the World Cup.

More than a dozen men in suits stand in a semi-circle with a man in long robes holding a soccer shirt with the number 12.
In a photo released by the office of the Iranian presidency, President Ebrahim Raisi, third left, is presented with a national soccer team jersey during his meeting with members of the team and sport officials at the presidency office in Tehran on Nov. 14. (Iranian Presidency Office/The Associated Press)

The soccer players were mostly silent about the upheaval back home until the day before their first match, when team captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed his condolences "to all of the bereaved families in Iran."

Head coach Carlos Queiroz said during a news conference that fans who were not ready to support the team should stay home.

In the meantime, a former member of Team Melli was arrested in Iran on Thursday over his criticism of the government.

The semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for "insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government."

Arahs, Amir and Maryam all live in Saskatoon. They all decided not to support the Iranian national team during the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. (Theresa Kliem/CBC)

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