Iran’s government supporters confront protesters at World Cup

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AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) – Tensions were high at Iran’s second game at the World Cup on Friday as fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting against it and stadium security confiscated flags, T-shirts and other items that expressed support for the protest movement that has gripped the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were stopped by stadium security from bringing Persian pre-revolutionary flags into the game against Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags had them ripped from their hands by pro-government Iran fans, who also shouted insults at fans wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan of the protest movement that gripped the country, “Woman, Life, Freedom.”

Unlike in their first match against England, the Iran players sang along to their national anthem before the match, while some fans in the stadium wept, whistled and booed.

The national team has been scrutinized for any statements or gestures about the nationwide protests that have plagued Iran for weeks.

Shouting fights broke out in queues outside the stadium between fans who screamed “Women, life, freedom” and others who shouted back “Islamic Republic!”

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

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

“We want to raise awareness about his arrest and about 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 have attacked me and called me a terrorist. All I’m here to say is that football means nothing if people are killed in the streets.”

Maryam and her friends had worn hats bearing the name of an outspoken former Iranian soccer player Voria Ghafouri, who had criticized the Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. She said Iranian government supporters had taken the hats off their heads.

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

“It is clear that the match had become very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iran fan who also declined to give his last name. “I think the arrest of Voria has also affected society in Iran a lot.”

Furious protesters in Iran have vented their anger over social and political oppression and the state-mandated headscarf, or hijab, for women. The demonstrations, spurred by the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police, have quickly grown into calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests broke out, according to the Human Rights Activists in Iran monitoring group.

The turmoil has overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. The opening match against England on Monday was the scene of protests as anti-government fans waved signs and shouted in the stands. Before that match, which Iran lost 6–2, its players remained silent while their national anthem played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday, they sang along to the anthem and celebrated wildly when they scored in the 2-0 win against Wales.

Ayeh Shams of the United States, who was at the match against Wales with her brother, said security guards confiscated her flag because it had the word “women” on it.

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

Zeinlabda Arwa, a security guard at the stadium, confirmed that authorities had been ordered to confiscate everything but the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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

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

Before Friday’s match, Iranians shouted anti-government slogans from rooftops in Tehran. Scattered protests also broke out in Kurdish towns in the country’s west and across the central city of Isfahan on Thursday.

Iranian state television on Friday devoted its main news bulletin to the Iranians’ footballing prowess, wishing the national team luck against Wales and airing 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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