Despite the victory, the protest investigation against Iran is increasing

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Iran’s soccer stars famously secured a last-gasp World Cup victory, but the scrutiny of the team’s conduct ahead of its decisive clash with the US will only intensify as leaders crack down on protests at home .

In a striking U-turn, the Iranian players sang their national anthem ahead of Friday’s game against Wales. Their silence when the song was played ahead of Monday’s match with England was seen as a sign of solidarity with the protests.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of abating the protests or the crackdown as Iran prepares for Tuesday’s already politically charged game against the United States, which Iran’s ecclesiastical leaders like to refer to as “the great Satan.”

A prominent former international star of the past decade, Voria Ghafouri, was arrested in Iran on Thursday after supporting the protests and condemning the crackdown.

The protest movement that erupted 10 weeks ago after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the vice squad, has created the most delicate situations for the players who are household names in the football-mad country.

Many supporters of the movement have not forgiven the team for meeting ultra-conservative president Ebrahim Raisi before leaving for Doha, with the anthem gesture before England’s game doing little to redeem them.

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“Children of Mullahs” and “A return to the factory settings” were some of the swear words used against the players on social media after they chose to sing the national anthem this time.

“Dishonest mercenaries,” tweeted Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute in London.

There was also speculation that the Iranian players would not celebrate the goals. But the team erupted into a wild celebration as two late goals were scored against Wales in the final minutes.

Former England player and prominent TV pundit Gary Lineker tweeted: “Given the coercion Iran’s players are likely to be going through, that’s a spectacularly emotional win.”

– ‘Incredibly painful’ –

Maziar Bahari, the founder of news site Iran Wire, said the players had clearly been pressured to sing the national anthem.

“The most half-hearted version of the national anthem of the Islamic Republic. The players have been threatened that they had to sing the national anthem or else,” he said.

It is not clear whether the pre-match arrest of Ghafouri, who was detained after training with his club on Thursday, was intentional on the part of authorities.

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But the player, who is of Kurdish descent, has been one of the most vocally prominent voices in Iran against the crackdown, particularly in the Kurdish-populated regions of western Iran, where activists say dozens have been killed in the past week alone.

In another arrest, authorities also arrested Pejman Rahbar, the editor of widely followed sports website varzesh3.com, reports said.

The state’s response to the protests has led to questions about whether the team represents Iran or the regime that has ruled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah.

The team is known in Persian as the “Tim Melli”, “The National Team”.

“Incredibly painful to see this humiliation of #TeamMelli,” wrote historian Roham Alvandi, an associate professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“This is how the Islamic Republic denies us even the simple joy of supporting our national team on the world stage.”

– ‘Not our enemies’ –

Reports also suggested that Qatari authorities were not allowing some fans to carry alternative Iranian flags into the stadium.

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An TSTIME photographer saw at the stadium on Friday how security personnel confiscated a fan’s flag with the protest slogan “Woman, life, freedom”.

The turbulence in Iran has also proved a trial for the team’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz, who has tried to argue that his team should not get into politics and defend its players.

Slander from some team members on social media even saw some suggest goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand’s broken nose was karma for bowing to Raisi at the pre-Doha meeting.

“The players are not our enemies,” Queiroz wrote on Instagram this week.

Iranian striker Mehdi Taremi denied on Thursday that his team had come under pressure from their government to sing the national anthem, saying: “I don’t like to talk about political issues, but we are not under pressure.”

A video later went viral on social media in which Queiroz gently berated the TSTIME reporter who asked Taremi for his opinion, saying “Why don’t you ask (England manager Gareth) Southgate about England and the United States leaving Afghanistan?”

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