The propaganda war playing out in the background of Iran’s World Cup campaign continued on Tuesday night, but fears of ugly scenes at the Al Thumama stadium failed to materialise.
The players sang the national anthem, some through gritted teeth, to a backdrop of whistles from the stands. Supporters smuggled in personal protests, the words “women life freedom” printed on T-shirts hidden under T-shirts and scrawled in marker pen on their bodies.
But despite an increase in security, with dozens of police standing behind the goal where Iran supporters were gathered, there was no apparent widespread intervention. One report suggested two female fans had a flag of Persia taken off them by security. Meanwhile, an American was grabbed by security for wearing a rainbow armband, the item Fifa had once assured visitors would not cause any problems with Qatari officials. After the game a male Iran fan was taken away by security while shouting “Women, life, freedom”.
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The scale of protest was intimate but widespread and there was much complexity, too. An emigré contingent among the Iranian support was substantial. It included one woman, who gave her name as Ayesha, who said she had had an Iran shirt taken from her by security during the match against Wales. This time, the second generation Iranian-American was wearing a USA shirt with “women life freedom” on it instead.
Nil, an Iranian living in Doha, had the same message on her shirt, just above a knot that was tied around her stomach and bared her midriff. She, like many female Iranian fans at the stadium, was not wearing a hijab, but pointed out that even those who did might be supportive of the protests. “Some will not wear it, but it’s not about just that. Women cannot buy, they cannot work, it is more.”
There were also young women without hijabs who were vocally denouncing the protesters, saying they should go home. Part of what appeared to be an organised group, they attempted to put themselves in front of the cameras that were outside the ground. One man in their number, Ali, said he lived in Canada, and that politics should keep out of football.
Asked what he would say to a woman protesting for her freedom, he said: “Be more patient. We do not need a revolution; when we have a revolution things go downhill. There is more instability, there is a power vacuum. We have to take it step by step.”
There were also rumours of “plants”, fake actors paid to muddy the waters with insincere messaging. And while much of the protest was focused on the Iranian regime, there were other messages too. Two women stood with a laminated placard protesting against US sanctions against the country, apparently protected for a while by members of security. And alongside the flag of the Islamic Republic and the star spangled banner a third flag was highly visible, too: that of Palestine.
As supporters gathered and slowly began their journey inside the ground, a young woman in a burka sped back and forth between them on roller skates, a giant Palestinian flag trailing behind her.