A Soccer Team Once United Iran. Now It Reflects Its Divisions.

Team Melli was long seen as a unifying force in a fractious nation. As it heads to the World Cup, it has become ensnared in its country’s internal politics.

Iran’s national soccer team, known as Team Melli, before a friendly against Uruguay in September.
Credit...Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

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Iran’s national soccer team has historically been viewed as a representative of the country’s people, not of the Islamic Republic’s government.

Team Melli, as the squad is known, has been embraced as an apolitical force, and as a secular passion that reflected a certain ideal, the Iran of everyone’s imagination. For years, the team has brought unity and joy to a fractious nation. Support for it has been effectively unconditional.

Until now.

As the World Cup in Qatar approaches, the first time the world’s biggest sporting event has been held in the Middle East, the Iranian team finds itself in an unfamiliar, polarizing position.

Team Melli has become ensnared in the internal politics of Iran, where an ongoing national uprising led by women and young people is demanding an end to clerical rule, and seeking more equitable treatment and increased personal freedoms. The protests were spurred by the mid-September death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, a young woman who had been arrested by the morality police in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on charges of violating a law requiring head coverings for women.

Some activists inside and outside Iran have called for FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to prohibit Iran from competing in the World Cup. They cite the government’s crackdown on protesters, which has left more than 250 killed, but also longstanding soccer grievances like limited stadium access for women to watch matches, and more overtly political complaints, like Iran’s providing of weaponized drones to Russia to aid its invasion of Ukraine.

A ban seems highly unlikely: FIFA recently sent a letter to all the World Cup teams and their federations, urging them to focus on soccer ahead of politics. But support for Team Melli is now divided even at home in this emotional and visceral moment, analysts, fans, journalists, and former coaches and players said.

The divide was clear in the wounded voice of Jalal Talebi, 80, who coached his native Iran at the 1998 World Cup in France, where he guided Team Melli to its most important victory ever, over the United States. (Iran is once again in the same first-round group as the United States in Qatar.) Talebi called soccer “part of life” in an interview, but said that he supports the protests and believes it is “not the time” to participate in the World Cup. He said he may decline to serve as a commentator for international television, and may not even watch Iran’s games from his home in the Bay Area.

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Credit...Clemens Bilan/EPA, via Shutterstock

“How could I feel to watch football when my neighbor, my brother, my countryman and countrywoman are in such a bad situation?” Talebi said.

Mohammad Motamedi, 44, a popular Iranian vocalist, was chosen to be Team Melli’s official singer for this World Cup but declined, writing on his Instagram page, “under the circumstances, I don’t even feel like talking, let alone singing.”

Keyvan, 47, a lawyer from Tehran, who asked that only his first name be used, canceled his tickets, flights and hotel accommodations for Iran’s group matches in Qatar, saying he had a change of heart because of the protests and the government’s violent crackdown.

But other fans said they fully supported Iran’s participation. Ali Gholizadeh, 37, a postdoctoral researcher from Mashhad, said that soccer is one of the remaining joys for people who feel squeezed by repression and international economic sanctions.

“Taking away the World Cup from us,” Gholizadeh said, would be “collective punishment.”

Even players within the national team appear divided on whether, or how forcefully, they should show support for the protesters.

According to a report on Twitter and Telegram by an independent journalist in Iran, the team’s star forwards, Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Terami, got into a heated argument in September at a training camp in Austria. The dispute reportedly took place after Azmoun posted on Instagram that “national team rules” suppressed players from expressing their views about the national protests, while also saying that he was willing to “sacrifice” his place in the World Cup “for one hair on the heads of Iranian women.” Azmoun briefly scrubbed his Instagram feed, then resumed with more circumspect postings.

Analysts said that some fans have accused players of being co-opted by the government, their loyalty secured with real-estate deals and imported luxury cars. Others accused the players of appearing insensitive at the Austrian training camp in the days after the death of Amini, by celebrating too excitedly after an exhibition victory over Uruguay and holding a 30th birthday party for goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.

“The excitement and joy we always felt for soccer and the World Cup is nonexistent this time around,” said Amir Ali, 54, an engineer in Tehran, who asked that his last name not be used. “We don’t care, and some people say if Team Melli loses, it’s a defeat for the regime.”

Those more sympathetic to the players note that they are undoubtedly facing enormous pressure — and perhaps even threats from the government — not to side publicly with the protesters as they seek to advance their careers in a tournament held only once every four years. Their concentration will surely be tested. And their every move will continue to be heavily scrutinized.

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Credit...Atta Kenare/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Protests by fans holding aloft photos of Amini and chanting “Women, Life, Freedom,” the mantra of the uprising, are widely expected in Qatar, inside and outside the stadiums. During a cabinet meeting on Oct. 30, Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, said he was worried for Team Melli, and that he had asked the foreign ministry to coordinate with Qatar — Iran’s closest Arab ally — to prevent “problems from surfacing.”

Inside Iran, if past World Cups are any indication, the government could restrict large public gatherings, where fans gather to watch matches and attend street celebrations.

Some Iranians have called on Team Melli (and its World Cup opponents, which also include England and Wales) to show solidarity with the protest movement while in Qatar. This could take the form of subtle gestures, such as wristbands, or more overt one like messages written on T-shirts or jerseys, or refusing to sing Iran’s national anthem or celebrate goals in its games.

Players, though, may be growing more emboldened. On Nov. 2, the powerful club team Esteghlal, which includes several prospective World Cup players, won Iran’s Super Cup, but Amir Arsalan Motahari, who scored the winning goal, did not celebrate. Instead, he shed a tear captured in a photograph. Another player, Mehdi Ghayedi, wrote the name of a young fan who was shot and killed by security forces in the northern city of Babol on his jersey.

Afterward, Esteghlal’s players kept their arms somberly crossed during the trophy ceremony. The team’s official Twitter page declared that “no one is happy” above a video of the muted postgame ceremony.

One player, Siavash Yazdani, told Iranian broadcast media that it was “a bitter victory during bitter times” and dedicated the match “to the women of Iran and the families of all the victims.”

A day later, Azmoun, the Team Melli star, posted “the honorable Esteghlal” on his Instagram page with a blue heart, the team color, against a black screen of mourning.

State television cut away from its live feed during Esteghlal’s victory ceremony. That could suggest that Iran will broadcast live World Cup matches with similar caution, including a short delay to avoid airing or showing stadium protests and, perhaps, orchestrated crowd noise instead of actual sounds from the stadiums.

“Athletes don’t have to be activists, but they must be patriots,” said Haleh, 50, an electrical engineer from Tehran, who asked that her last name not be used. “It’s called Team Melli, after all, meaning it’s of the people and for the nation.”

Jack Begg contributed research.