3 young Iranians in Sask. say they love soccer, but won't cheer for their country's team at this World Cup

Amir, Arash and Maryam are originally from Iran but all live in Saskatoon. All of them love soccer, but will not cheer for Iran's World Cup team in Qatar. (Theresa Kliem/CBC - image credit)
Amir, Arash and Maryam are originally from Iran but all live in Saskatoon. All of them love soccer, but will not cheer for Iran's World Cup team in Qatar. (Theresa Kliem/CBC - image credit)

As a little boy, Arash spent hours playing soccer with friends on a field close to his home in Tehran, Iran.

The 26-year-old fell in love with the sport when he was seven years old and his passion for the game is still strong today.

"It's the first sport in my country," said Arash, who recently graduated from the University of Saskatchewan.

"There are a lot of people who love football."

In previous years, Arash used to cheer for the Iranian soccer squad, known as Team Melli. It used to be a source of national pride for Arash, but this year is different.

"My concentration is now on what's happening in Iran and be[ing] the voice of my people," he said earlier this month, before the start of the World Cup in Qatar.

"The first [priority] is not the national team right now, unless they stand with our people and support them."

Arash is one of three Iranians living in Saskatoon that CBC spoke with for this story. CBC is not using their surnames, as they are worried about their family members who still live in Iran.

Theresa Kliem/CBC
Theresa Kliem/CBC

Mass protests in Iran since September

Iran has been gripped by nationwide protests since the death of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 after she was arrested by the country's morality police for wearing clothes deemed "inappropriate."

On Tuesday, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called the situation in Iran "critical," describing a hardening of the authorities' response to protests that have resulted in more than 300 deaths, including more than 40 children, in the past two months.

Arash is not alone with his decision to not support Team Melli at the 2022 World Cup.

University of Saskatchewan student Maryam usually loves soccer. While she primarily cheers for FC Bayern Munich — a team in the German Bundesliga — she said watching the sport is her biggest hobby and it doesn't really matter to her who is playing.

This year though, she has decided not to watch any World Cup games.

"It's very painful to see that your team is there, and you're not going to support them," she said earlier this month.

"Team Melli was always dear to my heart, but this year — although it's about the same players — I see them playing under a flag that do not support us."

Theresa Kliem/CBC
Theresa Kliem/CBC

Maryam is disappointed that FIFA didn't ban Iran's national team from the competition in Qatar, as the organization did with Russia after that country invaded Ukraine.

Maryam's friend Amir, a University of Saskatchewan student who is equally passionate about the sport, is joining Maryam and Arash in their refusal to cheer for Team Melli at this World Cup.

Soccer is a huge part of the Iranian culture, said Amir, who remembers his father and grandfather always watching the sport in Iran.

But the pain from what's going on in his home country is bigger than his love for the game.

"The situation in Iran, it wasn't really good all the time in the last … 44 years, but at this time it's way different," said Amir, who moved to Saskatoon in 2019.

"People in Iran, they're protesting, they are struggling, they're fighting for freedom."

Iran's soccer team silent during national anthem in Qatar on Monday

Team Melli is playing in Group B at the Fifa World Cup and lost its first game against England with 2-6 on Monday in Doha, Qatar.

But the match was not just about soccer.

Before kickoff, Iran's players declined to sing the national anthem, which was seen as a sign of support for the mass protests back home. The players were solemn and quiet as the anthem was played at Khalifa International Stadium in Qatar.

Marko Djurica/Reuters
Marko Djurica/Reuters

Maryam and Arash said they understand that Iran's national players are probably under a lot of pressure.

However, refusing to sing the national anthem was not enough, said Maryam.

"I really like the players to go to the field and not play, just stand there," she said on Wednesday.

Arash and other Iranian soccer fans have criticized Team Melli for meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ahead of the World Cup.

Iranian Presidency Office/The Associated Press
Iranian Presidency Office/The Associated Press

The soccer players were mostly silent about the upheaval back home until the day before their first match, when team captain Ehsan Hajsafi expressed his condolences "to all of the bereaved families in Iran."

Head coach Carlos Queiroz said during a news conference that fans who were not ready to support the team should stay home.

On Friday Team Melli defeated Wales 2-0 at the World Cup. But unlike in their first match against England, the Iran players sang along to their national anthem before the match against Wales.

In the meantime, a former member of Team Melli was arrested in Iran on Thursday over his criticism of the government.

The semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for "insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government."

Theresa Kliem/CBC
Theresa Kliem/CBC