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DG #49 preview: Iran’s protests at the Qatar World Cup

A spectator at the World Cup in Qatar pays tribute to Mahsa Amini, who was 22 when she died in police custody

The new issue of Delayed Gratification features an article by our associate editor James Montague on the protests in Iran and the extent to which they travelled across the Persian Gulf to the World Cup in Qatar. Here, our associate editor Matthew Lee asks James about his experience of reporting the story.

Matthew Lee: What’s your story about?
James Montague: Nominally, the story is about the Iran national football team playing at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But it ended up being much more than that. The team became a kind of Rorschach test for the ongoing uprising in Iran. Activists were appalled that the players were not supporting them and not criticising the regime enough. The regime demanded absolute fealty, and sought to use the team’s appearance for propaganda. I wanted to tell the story of the supporters who turned up to protest only to be faced by thousands of pro-regime fans and Qatari authorities that seemed more interested in supporting their long-time political ally than allowing free speech and protest in the stadiums.

ML: Why did you want to report on this topic?
JM: I’ve been writing about Iran and football for more than 15 years now. The modern history of Iranian football is deeply political and reflective of what is going on there. I remember before my first World Cup finals in 2006, I went to Iran to meet Ali Daei, the country’s greatest ever player. They had their best ever generation of players and were very excited about the possibility of going far. But Iran is a pariah state. When they turned up in Germany they were met by big protests; from Iranians who opposed the Islamic Republic and Jewish groups angry at the then-president’s antisemitism. At every World Cup Iran has qualified for since 1979 there have been protests. Before the Russia World Cup in 2018 I went to Tehran and met the women protesting against being banned from football matches in Iran. That issue made its way to the World Cup too. So I knew that what was going on in the streets in 2022 would bleed into the World Cup. And it did. Politics and football are inextricably linked in Iran.

ML: What was the atmosphere like at the Iran matches in Qatar?
JM: It’s hard to find a word to describe it. Unreality? Like most of the World Cup in Qatar, there was a facade that the world saw, and then competing truths all fighting for air underneath it. At the games it was hard to work out which way the crowd was leaning. You had to really look hard. Was it pro- or anti-regime? But that was exactly what the Iranian authorities wanted. To borrow a cricket phrase, they created a “corridor of uncertainty” so people weren’t sure what was real or not. Saying that, the atmosphere for the game against England was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The players were under huge pressure from both sides to sing or not sing the national anthem. When they refused to sing it, I had a tear in my eye.

ML: Was it difficult finding Iranian supporters in Qatar who would speak openly to you?
JM: It’s not just finding people to speak to. It is the care you have to take to make sure that speaking to you doesn’t get someone arrested or rendered. Being kidnapped and disappeared was a very real fear for everyone I spoke to. One activist I only interviewed in Istanbul, once they were out of Qatar. Another I interviewed over an encrypted messaging app. I met the activists who started the Twitter account Open Stadiums, who campaign for women to be allowed in football stadiums in Iran, far away from the stadiums to make sure they weren’t being followed. There were Iranian agents among the fans, as there were in Russia. Eyes were watching you everywhere.

ML: Do you think the tournament will be looked back on as a success?
JM: Not for Iran, I think. Many of Team Melli’s core constituency – the anti-Islamic Republic diaspora who see the team as a thread connecting them to their roots – said they abandoned the team for not being more forceful in backing the protesters. And losing against the US is hard to spin.

For Qatar, however, I think it will be considered a successful tournament. It was, I think, the first post-truth World Cup. They skillfully deflected criticism by making it “the west against the rest of the world.” It was a textbook example of the net publicity gain of investing in football as a soft power tool. We in the UK or the Netherlands or Denmark may have seen wall to wall criticism over human rights breaches or the appalling treatment of workers, which are both true. The rest of the world, however, saw western hypocrisy. I’m writing this as Qatar is on the verge of buying Manchester United. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have considered buying them unless they saw the political and economic benefits of hosting the World Cup finals.

James Montague is the author of When Friday Comes: Football Revolution in the Middle East and the Road to Qatar published by Penguin and available for sale at the DG shop

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