The World Cup in Qatar is practically a home tournament for Iran, only the narrow Persian Gulf separates the two nations.
But as they line up for their opening match against England on November 21, some of the Iranian players might feel rather uncomfortable wearing the tricolor flag and representing their country.
That’s assuming those players are picked for the team, and assuming that the team itself even makes it to Qatar; over the next few weeks, there is considerable uncertainty for any sports organization that represents The Islamic Republic of Iran.
Ever since the death of the 22-year-old woman Mahsa Amini in September, cities across Iran have been plunged into chaos and violence.
Amini died after she had been detained by the morality police for allegedly incorrectly wearing her compulsory hijab, and her fate sparked a female uprising which has swept the country.
Many women have publicly tossed aside their restrictive head dresses, and their simmering fury shows no sign of abating.
It’s the most serious challenge to the stability of the theocratic regime and it’s arguably the most significant one since it ascended to power in 1979.
Some have compared what’s happening in Iran to the Berlin Wall’s fall, and as the defiant chants of ‘Death to the Dictator’ have rung out on street corners from Tehran to Shiraz – the goal of the movement is clear, to topple Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, and effectively bring an end to the Islamic Republic.
In response, the government crackdown has been brutal.
The Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) have arrested thousands of protesters all while silencing their voices by shutting down the internet.
And yet, despite the internet blackouts, more and more videos are emerging of protesters being chased, shot, beaten, or violently thrown to the ground.
CNN has been unable to verify an accurate list of casualties, but dozens of young people are believed to have been killed.
In recent years, some of the country’s top athletes have staked out their own position against the government.
Following the execution of the wrestler Navid Afkari, who was found guilty of killing a security guard during the previous uprising in 2018 and hanged in Shiraz two years later, a group of wrestlers, karatekas, judokas and football players aligned to form the United for Navid campaign.
Afkari’s family and supporters have always argued that he was innocent, and that his trial was a sham. Now, many of the country’s top athletes, who are revered in Iran, have unofficially joined forces with protesters fighting for their rights on the streets.
Writing on his social media account during Iran’s preparations for the upcoming World Cup, 27-year-old forward Sardar Azmoun said, “Because of national team regulations, we couldn’t say anything until the training was finished.”
He indicated that his public stance in opposition to the government could cost him a place at the World Cup, but he says the loss of a professional goal would be for a good cause.
“That is worth sacrificing for one strand of Iranian women’s hair,” Azmoun wrote in an Instagram story, “Shame on you who kill people so easily. Long live Iranian women.”
After speaking out, many were skeptical that Azmoun would be allowed to represent Iran on the pitch, so it was a surprise when he played for Iran in an international friendly mat