Some governments, such as Syria and Myanmar, kill their own people. Some, such as Russia, kill people in other countries, as in Ukraine. Iran’s government is doing both, home and away.
Now, pressed into action by this murderous regime, Iran’s national football team is about to play England, Wales and the US in the 2022 World Cup – as if nothing unexpected were happening. This is not OK. In truth, it’s shameful.
To assist fans traveling to Qatar for the England-Iran match on 21 November and other Group B fixtures, here’s a brief program guide to recent events off the pitch.
Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, was beaten to death in police custody in Tehran in September after her arrest for allegedly breaking rules on mandatory head-coverings. In the ensuing nationwide protests – which are continuing – Iran’s security forces have killed hundreds of people and detained nearly 10,000. Demands for reform have been rejected out of hand.
Hardliners say the demonstrators should be executed. That would be nothing out of the ordinary for a regime notorious for human rights abuses, foreign hostage-taking and assassination plots.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not stop at terrorizing young women. By supplying swarms of “kamikaze” drones to Russia, and reportedly ballistic missiles, too, the aging dictator is helping Vladimir Putin’s forces kill and maim Ukrainian children and create a humanitarian disaster this winter.
Khamenei’s regime, which has military ties to North Korea and Syria, as well as Russia, and is regarded by Israel as an existential threat, appears determined to acquire nuclear weapons-making capability. Tehran stalled last-ditch European efforts to revive the 2015 UN-backed nuclear deal. Experts say Iran can now produce enough fissile material to build a bomb in less than seven days.
Iran’s players are uncomfortably aware of regime efforts to use football (and them) to present a normal face to the world and distract attention from the crisis at home. Sardar Azmoun, a star striker, castigated the mullahs on Instagram. “Shame on you for so easily killing our people and long live the women of Iran,” he wrote. Teammates have also criticized the regime.
Yet there’s little doubt Team Melli, as the national side is known, will show up in Doha. Penalties for refusing to play would be fearsome and there appears no prospect of a boycott. For different reasons, the England, US and Wales teams will also presumably do as they are told. National prestige and a great deal of money are at stake. Politically speaking, it would be next to impossible to pull out now. Humanly speaking, it’s sickening.
How is it acceptable to play games with a country at war with its own people and, indirectly, with you and your friends? Gianni Infantino, president of Fifa, world football’s governing body, gave his tin-eared answer this month. He pleaded with the 32 countries competing in Qatar to “focus on the football” and leave “politics” out of it.
“We know football does not live in a vacuum,” Infantino wrote. “But please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists … At Fifa, we try to respect all opinions and beliefs, without handing out moral lessons to the rest of the world.”
Given its history of corruption and racketeering, the idea of Fifa handing out “moral lessons” to anyone is laughable. But set that to one side for now.
Significantly, Infantino did not address calls for Iran to be thrown out of the World Cup. And he also ignored the quintessentially political action taken by Fifa itself in February, when it excluded Russia after its Ukraine invasion. Other precedents include ostracism of apartheid-era South Africa, and the banning of the Yugoslavia/Serbia team from international tournaments in 1992.
The bizarre yet persist idea that sport can somehow isolate itself, or be absolved, from the political and socioeconomic order in which it has its being underpins the flawed approach of World Cup hosts Qatar – a close ally of Iran.
This “Don’t look up” strategy has inevitably sucked Qatar into controversy over migrant workers’ rights and, more recently, over archaic attitudes to LGBTQ+ fans. An offensive claim last week by a Qatari World Cup “ambassador” that homosexuality arises from “damage in the mind” crystallized the problem.
Despite some progress, “human rights abuses [in Qatar] persist on a significant scale,” Amnesty International reported last month. “If Gianni Infantino wants the world to ‘focus on the football’ … Fifa could finally start tackling serious human rights issues rather than brushing them under the carpet,” said Amnesty’s head of economic and social justice, Steve Cockburn. “It is astonishing they still have not done so.”
Ten European football associations, including the English and Welsh FAs, are demanding Fifa and Qatar do more. A joint statement included an important, even historic declaration. “Embracing diversity and tolerance also means supporting human rights. Human rights are universal and they apply everywhere,” it said.
That’s certainly true. So if for no other reason, consistency requires that Saudi Arabia, another World Cup qualifier and serial human rights abuser, also face harsher scrutiny. The Saudi regime has turned Qatar-style sportwashing – reputation laundering – into a successful industry through lavish sponsorship of international sporting events and the purchase of the English Premier League club Newcastle United.
Yet egregious Saudi human rights abuses, including mass executions and torture, persist. Will the wrongfully jailed Leeds University student, Salma al-Shehab, and other Saudi and Iranian political prisoners be watching the footie from their cells? Unlikely.
Scrub the paeans to “universal rights”. Forget hyped-up talk of an “exceptional global carnival” and “unprecedented festival of football”.
As a spectacle of human self-deception, disassociation and blatant hypocrisy, the 2022 World Cup is a genuine world-beater.
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