By Jon Gambrell and Isabel Debre – Associated Press
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Smiling U.S. and Iranian fans mingled and posed for photos outside a stadium in Doha ahead of a politically charged World Cup match on Tuesday.
The atmosphere was generally festive though the political divisions among Iran fans were apparent outside Al Thumama Stadium, as they have been during previous Iran games during the tournament, with pro-government fans confronting those expressing support for the anti-government protests across Iran.
Two London-based Iranians, wearing T-shirts with the slogan of protests, were repeatedly harassed while talking to an Associated Press journalist on Tuesday. One of them, who identified herself as Maryam, received a grazing slap to the face by an Iranian man following her. Security guards got between them, but did not detain the man who slapped her.
Other men blew vuvuzelas at the two or filmed them. One man shouted at them in Farsi “why don’t you think Iran is good?”
Maryam, who like other Iran fans declined to give her last name for fear of government reprisals, said her friends were similarly harassed at the Iran-Wales match on Friday.
“They can’t stop us. People are getting killed and I’m not going to get stopped by some random guy. I’m not afraid of them,” she said.
Dalia, an 18-year-old Iranian from the southern city of Ahvaz who attended the game with her parents, said Tuesday’s match had exposed divisions within her family between those still committed to supporting Iran’s national team and others who reject the players as tools of the government.
The Iranian players in Qatar have declined to comment or made vague statements about the protests in Iran, which were sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman while in the custody of Iran’s morality police.
“It’s so sad for me because I want to support them so badly but I just can’t,” Dalia said.
The Iranian players sang along to their national anthem before kickoff, which they also did against Wales. The players remained silent when the anthem played during Iran’s World Cup opener against England in what some interpreted as a show of support for the protest movement.
Mehrdad and Eli from Arizona brought pictures of the young women killed in Iran’s protests to the match. But holding them up invited harassment, they said, so Eli kept them in her purse. They described a deep sense of unease at the stadium.
“I feel like I am surrounded by IRGC agents,” said Mehrdad, referring to the country’s powerful Revolutionary Guard. “Everybody’s watching you.”
Elsewhere, U.S. and Iranian fans appeared unfazed by the tensions between the two countries, posing together for photos.
The two teams have played in a World Cup once before, in 1998 in France, when Iran beat the U.S. 2-1.
“It has been amazing to see Americans. They are so friendly,” said Yas, a 14-year-old Iran fan from the city of Shiraz. “I hope this is a chance for people to connect and share their cultures peacefully.”
Her older sister had an X written with a black marker over her lips.
“She’s doing that to show we all can’t talk about the politics in our country,” Yas said.
The latest protests mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces have unleashed live ammunition and bird shot on the protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence captured on video.
At least 452 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the start of the unrest, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
Iranian authorities announced just before the match that two former Iran players who were arrested this month in connection with the protests have been released.
Parviz Boroumand, a retired goalkeeper, was arrested nearly two weeks ago on charges of participating in protests in the capital, Tehran, and was accused of damaging property. Voria Ghafouri was arrested last week for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government,” according to state-linked media.
Gianni Infantino, the head of world soccer body FIFA, said in a statement he was “delighted” that Ghafouri was released.
“In taking this decision, I appreciate the support of the Iranian authorities, and in particular that of Hamid Sajjadi, the Iranian Minister of Sport and Youths, who I met around Iran’s match versus Wales,” Infantino said. “FIFA maintains that dialogue and engagement should remain as the prime channel to resolving problems of any kind.”
Associated Press writer Ciaran Fahey contributed to this report.
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