Coming home? England start World Cup in Qatar by thrashing Iran 6-2

Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests
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DOHA (Reuters) – England hammered Iran 6-2 on Monday in an emphatic World Cup opener thanks to two goals from Bukayo Saka and strikes by Jude Bellingham and Raheem Sterling, before substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish rounded off the rout.

England had come close to taking the lead in the Group B opener, with Harry Maguire heading against the crossbar, before Bellingham, 19, steered in a header from a Luke Shaw cross in the 35th minute.

Eight minutes later, England doubled their lead when Maguire climbed highest from a corner to head down for Saka to score.

Sterling flicked in a cross by captain Harry Kane in first-half stoppage time before Saka bamboozled Iran’s defence and made it 4-0 in the 62nd minute. Mehdi Taremi narrowed the gap for Iran three minutes later but Rashford made it 5-1 and Grealish, also coming off the bench, scored England’s sixth.

Taremi scored a consolation second goal for Iran from the penalty spot in the dying seconds.

(Reporting by William Schomberg Editing by Christian Radnedge)

Jack Grealish (R) of England celebrates scoring the 6-1 lead with teammate Phil Foden during the FIFA World Cup 2022 group B soccer match between England and Iran at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar, 21 November 2022.
EPA-EFE/Rolex dela Pena

Iranian World Cup squad declines to sing national anthem, backing protests

Iran’s World Cup soccer team declined to sing their national anthem before their opening match against England on Monday after many fans back home accused the squad of siding with a violent state crackdown on persistent popular unrest. 

Protests demanding the fall of the ruling Shi’ite Muslim theocracy have gripped Iran since the death two months ago of young woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest for flouting the strict Islamic dress code. 

Dozens of Iranian public figures, athletes and artists have displayed solidarity with the protesters – but not the national soccer team, until Monday’s match when all team members remained silent when the national anthem was played.

Iranian state television did not show the players lined up for the anthem before the match got under way in Qatar, just across the Gulf from their homeland. 

The Iranian squad could not avoid being overshadowed by the anti-government unrest that has rattled Iran’s Shi’ite Muslim theocracy, while other World Cup teams were squarely focused on their tactics on the pitch.

Ahead of the match, no Iranian player had voiced support for the demonstrations by compatriots from all walks of life, one of the most sustained challenges to the cleric elite since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

“All of us are sad because our people are being killed in Iran but all of us are proud of our team because they did not sing the national anthem – because it’s not our national (anthem), it’s only for the regime,” said an Iranian fan attending the World Cup who asked not to be named.

n the past, the Iranian soccer team was a source of fired up national pride throughout the country. Now, with mass protests, many would prefer it withdrew from the World Cup.

Before travelling to Doha the team met with hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Photos of the players with Raisi, one of them bowing in front of him, went viral while the street unrest raged on, drawing an outcry on social media.

“I have mixed feelings. I love football but with all these children, women and men killed in Iran, I think the national team should not play,” university student Elmira, 24, said, speaking by telephone from Tehran before the match.

“It is not Iran’s team, it is the Islamic Republic’s team.”

‘SHOW SOLIDARITY’

“They could refuse to take part in the World Cup or even refuse to play if they were forced to go, to show that they are part of the nation, to show solidarity with mothers in Iran whose children were killed by the regime (during protests).”

The activist HRANA news agency said 410 protesters had been killed in the unrest as of Saturday, including 58 minors.

Some 54 members of the security forces had also been killed, HRANA said, with at least 17,251 people arrested. Authorities have not provided an estimate of any wider death count.

“I know it is their job to play football but with all those children killed in Iran, they should have stood in solidarity with the people. Especially when the England team is going to kneel (in solidarity), how can the national team show no solidarity?” high school student Setareh, 17, said by telephone from the northwestern city of Urmia.

Some Iranian fans who went to Qatar for the World Cup made no secret of their solidarity with the unrest.

They carried banners that read “Women, Life, Freedom” in support of the protests. “Freedom for Iran. Stop killing children in the streets!” shouted one Iranian woman.

Another Iranian woman with the colours of an Iranian flag painted on her face said Iran is a football-crazed nation.

“But this year,” she said, “everything is different, all we care about is this revolution and for people to get their freedom back, and not be scared to just walk on the street, do and dress as they want, and say what they want.”

In the capital Tehran, some banners of the national team have been burned by angry protesters.

Pictures of children killed in the protests were widely shared by Iranians on Twitter, with messages such as: “They loved football too, but they were killed by the Islamic Republic.”

“Those children took risks for their country and were killed by the regime. The national team should take risks and show solidarity with the nation,” Hamidreza, 19, a university student in southern Iran, said before the match.

Pejman Zarji, a 38-year-old sports coach who was in Qatar for the World Cup, said the Iranian team belonged to the people not the government.

“There is always – no matter what – a part that’s about politics. There’s something really important to understand (now) – ‘Team Melli’ is what we call the Iran team, it’s the team of the people before being the team of the government,” he said.

Sara Masoudi, 32, another Iranian fan in Qatar who works for a media management company, played down the protests at home. They were “very small” but the media made them out to be large, she told Reuters.

“I don’t see a lot of fans here who are supporters of the protests. Social media is giving a wrong picture of reality.”

Additional reporting by Hamad Mohammed, Maya Gebeily, Charlotte Bruneau and Yara Abi Nader; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Mark Heinrich

Reuters/EPA

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