The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, has been vocal about the protests online. Two former soccer stars have even been arrested for backing the movement. Iran’s players didn’t sing along to their national anthem before the match against England.
“At the end of the day, I want the players to achieve their dreams,” said Mariam. “It’s not their fault our society is so polarized.”
The Iranian government, for its part, has tried to encourage citizens to support their team against Iran’s traditional enemies. Iran plays the United States on Nov. 29 — a contentious showdown that last occurred at the 1998 World Cup in France.
Observers note that the players are likely facing government pressure not to side with the protests. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has urged his government to prepare for potential problems. Iran International, the Saudi-financed Farsi news channel that heavily covers the Iranian opposition, reported that Qatari authorities barred its reporters from attending the World Cup under Iranian pressure.
Already, Iranian athletes have drawn enormous scrutiny. When Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without wearing her country’s mandatory headscarf, she became a lighting rod of the protest movement.
“We’re waiting for them to show us they’re supporting the people in Iran,” Azi, a 30-year-old Iranian fan living in Ottawa, Canada, said of the national team. “Some kind of sign, by any way they can.”