Supporters of Iran’s government confront protesters at the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Tensions ran high during Iran’s second World Cup match on Friday when fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting it and stadium security seized flags, T-shirts and other items showing their support for the protest movement gripping the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were stopped by stadium security from taking Persian pre-revolutionary flags to the game against Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags were ripped from their hands by pro-government Iran fans, who also shouted insults at fans wearing T-shirts with the slogan of the protest movement gripping the country: “Woman, life, freedom”.

Unlike their first match against England, the Iranian players sang along to their national anthem before the match as some fans in the stadium cried, whistled and booed.

The national team has come under scrutiny for statements or gestures over the nationwide protests that have been plaguing Iran for weeks.

Screaming matches broke out in lines outside the stadium between fans shouting “Women, Life, Freedom” and others shouting back “The Islamic Republic!”

Crowds of men surrounded three different women who were giving interviews about the protests to foreign media outside the stadium, disrupting broadcasts as they angrily chanted, “The Islamic Republic of Iran!” Many female fans seemed shocked when supporters of the Iranian government yelled at them in Farsi and filmed them up close on their phones.

After Iran’s 2-0 win, crowds of Iranian fans poured out of the stadium waving national flags wildly. They crowded out a group of protesters holding up pictures of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose death on September 16 in the custody of the morality police first sparked the protests, shouting “Victory!” to drown out chants of Amini’s name.

A 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iran fans refused to give her last name for fear of government reprisals, began to cry as screaming men blowing horns surrounded her and filmed her face. She had the words “Woman Life Freedom” painted on her face.

“We want to make people aware of his arrest and of the women’s rights movement,” said Maryam, who lives in London but is originally from Tehran. “I’m not here to fight anyone, but people are attacking me and calling me a terrorist. All I want to say here is that football doesn’t matter if people are being killed in the street.”

Maryam and her friends wore hats bearing the name of an outspoken Iranian former footballer Voria Ghafouri, who had criticized Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. She said supporters of the Iranian government had taken their hats off their heads.

Ghafouri, who is Kurdish, was a star member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad but was surprisingly not named in this year’s Qatar squad.

“Obviously the game was very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iran fan who also refused to give his last name. “I think Voria’s arrest has also had a lot of impact on society in Iran.”

Angry protesters in Iran have expressed anger at social and political repression and the state-mandated headscarf or hijab for women. The demonstrations have quickly turned into calls for the demise of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests broke out, according to the monitoring group of Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The unrest has overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. Monday’s opening game against England was the scene of protests as anti-government fans waved signs and chanted in the stands. Before that game, which Iran lost 6-2, the players remained silent as their national anthem played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday, they sang along to the national anthem and celebrated as they scored twice against Wales.

Ayeh Shams, an Iranian from the United States, said guards confiscated her flag because it had the word “women” on it.

“We are just here to enjoy the games and provide a platform for the Iranian people who are fighting against the Islamic regime,” Shams said.

Zeinlabda Arwa, a security guard at the stadium, confirmed that authorities had been ordered to confiscate everything except the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Whether you are talking about Iran or Qatar or any other country, you are only allowed to bring the normal flag,” she said.

An angry group of Iranian government supporters yelled at Elyas Doerr, a 16-year-old Iranian boy living in Arizona who wore the Persian flag as a cape, until he took it off and put it in his bag.

“They don’t like that it’s a political statement,” he said, adding that other Iranian fans had approached him to say they appreciated the gesture.

A 32-year-old Iranian woman living in southern Spain who refused to give her name for fear of reprisals, rushed after the game to retrieve her hat and flag that had been confiscated by stadium security. She said Qatar police had instructed her to scrub off the names of Iranian protesters killed and arrested by security forces, which she had written on her arms and chest, at the behest of supporters of the Iranian government. The game only left traces of ink on her skin that had been rubbed raw.

“Today’s football experience was the most intimidating I’ve ever had, before and after the game,” she said. She described dozens of men surrounding her and trying to cover her face with their Iranian flags, snatching her plates while Qatari security watched.

“I don’t care about the win, to be honest. That is not my priority.”

After the game, Iranian state television broadcast patriotic songs and showed footage of people cheering across the country.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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