Supporters of the Iranian government clash with protesters during the World Cup

Supporters of the Iranian government clash with protesters during the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Tensions ran high in Iran’s second match at the World Cup on Friday as fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting against it and stadium security seized flags, t-shirts and other items expressing support for the protest movement that has gripped the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were prevented by stadium security from bringing pre-revolutionary Persian flags to face Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags were snatched from their hands by pro-government Iranian supporters, who also shouted insults at supporters wearing T-shirts with the slogan of the protest movement gripping the country, “Woman, Life, Liberty”.

Unlike their first game against England, the Iranian players sang their national anthem before the game as some fans at the stadium cried, whistled and booed.

The national team has come under scrutiny for any statements or gestures regarding the nationwide protests that have plagued Iran for weeks.

Match shouting broke out in the queues outside the stadium between fans shouting “Women, life, freedom” and others shouting “The Islamic Republic!”

Small crowds of men surrounded three different women giving interviews about the protests to foreign media outside the stadium, disrupting broadcasts as they angrily chanted “Islamic Republic of Iran!” Many female fans appeared shaken when supporters of the Iranian government shouted at them in Farsi and filmed them in close-up on their phones.

A 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iranian fans refused to give her last name for fear of government reprisals, burst into tears as men shouting and blowing horns slammed her surrounded and filmed her face. She had the words “Woman Life Freedom” painted on her face.

“We want to raise awareness about her arrest and the women’s rights movement. Simple,” said Maryam, who lives in London but is originally from Tehran. “I’m not here to fight anyone, but people attack me and call me a terrorist. All I’m here to say is that football doesn’t matter if people are getting killed in the street.

Maryam and her friends wore hats emblazoned with the name of outspoken Iranian former footballer Voria Ghafouri, who had criticized Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday for spreading propaganda against the government. She said supporters of the Iranian government have taken the hat off their heads.

Ghafouri, who is Kurdish, was a star member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad, but surprisingly he was not named in the squad this year in Qatar.

“Obviously the game had become very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iranian fan who also declined to give his last name. “I think Voria’s arrest also affected Iranian society a lot.”

Furious protesters in Iran have expressed anger over social and political repression and the state-mandated headscarf, or hijab, for women. The protests, spurred by the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, 22, in the custody of the country’s vice police, quickly turned into calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests began, according to the monitoring group Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The turmoil overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. The opener against England on Monday was the scene of protests as anti-government supporters held up signs and chanted in the stands. Prior to this match, which Iran lost 6-2, their players remained silent as their national anthem played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday they sang the anthem and wildly celebrated their goal in the 2-0 win over Wales.

Ayeh Shams of the United States, who was at the game against Wales with her brother, said security guards confiscated her flag because it bore the word ‘women’.

“We are first generation Americans. Our parents were born in Iran. We are just here to enjoy the games and give a platform to the people of Iran who are fighting against the Islamic regime,” Shams said.

Stadium security officer Zeinlabda Arwa confirmed that authorities had been ordered to confiscate everything except the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Whether you’re talking about Iran, Qatar or any country, you’re only allowed to bring the normal flag,” she said.

A group of angry Iranian government supporters yelled at Elyas Doerr, a 16-year-old Iranian living in Arizona who wore the Persian flag as a cape, until he took it off and put it in his bag. “They don’t like it being a political statement,” he said, adding that other Iranian fans had approached him to say they appreciated the gesture.

Ahead of Friday’s game, Iranians chanted anti-government slogans from the rooftops of Tehran. Scattered protests also erupted in Kurdish towns in the west of the country and in the central city of Isfahan on Thursday.

Iranian state television on Friday dedicated its main newscast to the Iranians’ footballing prowess, wishing the national team luck against Wales and showing a montage of Iranian goals throughout history.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports


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