Qatar’s World Cup offered a global stage for Iran’s anti-government protests

The US Soccer team scrubbed the emblem from the Iran flag in now-deleted Instagram and Twitter posts

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Fans are making the same statement US soccer did.
Fans are making the same statement US soccer did.
Photo: Fadel Senna (Getty Images)

Protests at Qatar World Cup 2022 don’t last long–the same applied to the US soccer federation.

On Saturday (Nov. 26), the US Soccer team used an altered Iran flag in Instagram and Twitter posts. In a table showing Group B standings at the ongoing Qatar World Cup 2022, the US omitted the Iranian flag’s emblem—four curves with a sword between them representing “there is no God but Allah,” part of the Islamic declaration of faith. The two teams are scheduled to face off in a match tomorrow (Nov. 29).

The post was meant as a one-time show of support for protestors, US Soccer said, quoted in CNN, and wasn’t run past US players or coaches.

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The next day, Iran called on FIFA to take action against the US team for violating its rules. Specifically, Iran state-affiliated news agency Tasnim pointed to section 13 of Fifa rules, which says “any person who offends the dignity or integrity of a country, a person or group of people shall be sanctioned with a suspension lasting at least 10 matches or a specific period, or any other appropriate disciplinary measure.”

The US Soccer’s post has been removed.

Brief history of what US Soccer was protesting

Demonstrations erupted across the country in September, following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police detention after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating Iran’s strict rule for wearing a hijab or a headscarf.

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Since then, more than 380 protestors are estimated to have died at the hands of the regime which is trying to suppress the uproar. The UN Rights Council voted to appoint a probe into Iran’s repression of anti-government processes, but Iran rejected it.

But calls to expel Iran from the World Cup altogether—from women’s rights activists and from Ukraine, which took issue with Iran extending military support to Russia—fell on deaf ears. Activists had requested the England team refuse to play Iran, but the match went on. (England defeated Iran 6-2.)

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The Iranian team, for their part, have signaled support for protesters. Captain Ehsan Hajsafi said as much in a press conference, and the team refused to meet the country’s president Ebrahim Raisi before the tournament, as well as abstaining from singing the national anthem in their opening match against England.

After Iran’s win against Wales last week, Tehran reportedly freed 700 prisoners across the country.

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Foiled plans for protests in Qatar

The Iranian government isn’t the only one facing protests at the World Cup. Host nation Qatar has its own set of problematic issues including women’s rights issues, anti-gay laws, and ill-treatment of migrant labor.

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But protests have been few and far between. Brands think the major sporting event is too big to ignore. While some celebrities like Dua Lipa and Rod Steward said they rejected million-dollar checks to perform there, others like K-pop band BTS star Jungkook, actor Morgan Freeman, and football icon David Beckham all showed up.

Both the Qatar government and FIFA have either remained silent or denied all the allegations of human rights violations, and threatened repercussions for the teams who intended to draw attention to diversity issues.

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Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and it carries a five year prison sentence. Captains of seven European teams had planned to wear rainbow “One Love” armbands to protest these antigay laws. But hours before the opening games, FIFA did not allow it.

In a statement at the time, the soccer associations of England, Wales, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland said: “FIFA has been very clear that it will impose sporting sanctions if our captains wear the armbands on the field of play,” the soccer associations of England, Wales, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland said in a statement. “We can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions including bookings, so we have asked our captains not to wear the armbands.”

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German players put a hand over their mouths for their team picture, a gesture symbolizing censorship, ahead of the game against Japan to protest the decision.

The US had previously unveiled a logo that replaced red stripes on the crest with a rainbow pattern, but they only set it up in their own training facility. The team has not worn it during matches.

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Denmark arrived in Qatar with an all-black kit—a symbol of mourning—to protest Qatar’s poor human rights record and mistreatment of migrant labor. As many as 6,500 workers brought in from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka have died while working on infrastructure projects in the run up to the World Cup, according to a Guardian analysis. The Qatari government doesn’t recognize more than 37 of these deaths.

Denmark has yet to debut the outfit on field—if it’s allowed to. FIFA already barred the Danish team from wearing a practice jersey that said “human rights for all,” deeming it “too political.”

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