Even before the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar kicked off, the tournament already had a hero: the former captain of the Iranian national team, Ali Daei.
Now retired and working as a coach, Daei is without question the greatest footballer Iran has ever produced, playing at senior level both in his home country and in Germany. Daei was even the world’s top international goal scorer until last year, when his haul of 109 goals was pipped by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Adored in Iran, he made 149 appearances for the men’s national team, including the World Cup tournaments of 1998 and 2006.
Daei is also a devout Muslim who once turned down a lucrative offer to appear in a beer ad in Germany on the grounds that the consumption of alcohol is proscribed by his faith. But as with many Iranians, in Daei’s case, belief in the religious tenets of Islam does not necessarily translate into support for the Islamic Republic that has ruled with an iron fist since 1979.
Last week, circumventing the restrictions imposed on internet access by the Iranian regime amid historic protests against its continued rule, Daei told his 10.6 million followers on Instagram that he had turned down an invitation to attend the competition from its Qatari hosts and FIFA, world soccer’s governing body.
Daei cited the protests that have convulsed Iran as the reason for his staying away from Qatar. He wanted, he told his followers, to “be by your side in my homeland and express my sympathy with all the families who have lost loved ones these days.” This was in keeping with Daei’s previous statements, such as his message to the regime declaring, “instead of suppression, violence, arrests and accusing the people of Iran of being rioters, solve their problems.” Daei also put his neck on the line last month when he publicly challenged the regime’s claim that a young female protestor in his hometown of Ardabil had died of a pre-existing medical condition, and not at the hands of police officers.
Daei’s announcement might be taken as evidence of the old observation that there are things in life more important than soccer. But in soccer-mad Iran, what happens with the national team both on and off the field frequently takes on a political significance unknown among those teams coming from democratic countries.
Iran’s World Cup appearances are invariably an opportunity for Iranians living outside their homeland to express their patriotism while loudly opposing the ayatollahs. In Qatar, they may even be joined in those protests by the players, who have been told by coach Carlos Queiroz that they are “free to protest as they would if they were from any other country as long as it conforms with the World Cup regulations and is in the spirit of the game.”
Certainly, that is a prospect which worries the Iranian regime. Speaking to the players as they were paraded in front of him before departing for Qatar, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told them, “Some don’t want to see the success and victory of Iranian youth and wish to disturb your focus. Be very vigilant on this.” As much as that might sound like advice, it is in fact a threat – and given that the regime has murdered nearly 400 people and arrested more than 15,000 since the protests began in September, it is a threat that should be taken seriously.
The regime is taking all the measures it can to ensure that mass sessions of soccer watching don’t become the occasion for additional protests. To that end, they can count on their allies in Qatar, an obscenely wealthy Gulf emirate that thumbed its nose at the Abraham Accords with Israel some of its neighbors signed up to, and which continues to back the Hamas terrorist organization in Gaza.
At the end of last week, the Qataris announced that they had revoked the World Cup credentials of Iran International (IITV), an anti-regime broadcaster based in London with a solid following in Iran despite the regime’s various censorship mechanisms. The decision was made after Iran’s rulers classified IITV as a “terrorist organization,” with the influential conservative newspaper Kayhan reporting that Iran had pressured Qatar to comply with its wishes. IITV had intended to dispatch seven journalists to cover the World Cup, but only three were concerned with the soccer aspect; the remainder were going to cover the action off the field, which likely explains Iran’s objections.
Qatar’s censorship on behalf of its Iranian ally aligns with the sly, underhanded manner through which it used its wealth and influence for the purpose of bribing FIFA into awarding Doha the 2022 World Cup, an outcome that former FIFA President Sepp Blatter now belatedly admits was “a mistake.” Those who tune into the games should at least be aware of the context in which they take place. Over 6,000 migrant workers have lost their lives in unsafe, unsanitary conditions to build the air-conditioned stadiums where the matches will be hosted. More than 90% of the population, consisting exclusively of foreigners, lives under a form of apartheid, to the point that they are banned from entering the swish malls where Qatari citizens purchase luxury goods and eat at western food outlets. Women are second-class citizens while homosexuality is the subject of medieval repression, with gay men who are also Muslim facing the death penalty if they are apprehended.
Earlier this month, the supporters of German side Borussia Dortmund—who in normal circumstances would never pass up the opportunity to watch a soccer match—unfurled a large banner before a domestic league game that declared, “Boycott Qatar 2022.” Amid all the spin around the competition that the Qataris have generated, along with FIFA’s insistence that we should all forget about the politics and concentrate on the soccer, that was a much needed and welcome statement. Those who choose not to heed this call are entitled to their opinion, but please do us all a favor, and don’t call the spectacle in Qatar the “beautiful game.”
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.