“I’m talking to an Israeli journalist!” Giggles and grace from Iranians at the World Cup

DOHA, Qatar – Wearing the white shirt of the Iran national soccer team, Mohammad turned to his friend with a broad smile and said, “I’m talking to an Israeli journalist!” an idea so ludicrous to the two men that it evoked a burst of laughter, which I joined very hesitantly.

As the sun set behind the Khalifa International Stadium, Iranian fans paraded into the mega venue in western Doha for their national team’s clash against England on Monday. Off the field, much of the media circus has focused on the rare opportunity to hear Iranian citizens face-to-face, away from the prying eyes of the regime.

When I approached people wearing Iranian colors for comment, many seemed happy to talk—that is, until I quickly introduced myself and the publication I write for. At that point the polite apologies began. “I’m in a hurry, sorry,” was a common refrain.

Mohammed, a a student at the University of Tehran, he was nonetheless ready to speak. After he and his friend stopped giggling at the sheer absurdity of speaking to The Times of Israel, he speculated that the anti-regime protests in his country were being fueled by Western media, which he said were far more “powerful.” of the Iranian ones. weak means”. “It’s a media war,” he said as he patiently waited to go through the stadium’s strict security protocol.

Mohammad stressed that “all countries have social problems, all of them, even Israel”, but insisted that “we must create a good social situation for our people”.

She said women’s rights are “an agenda in Iran, in the Middle East, in Qatar. If you pay attention to the media you can see the human rights problem in Qatar as well. I see the global problem, not just the Iranian one.”

Iran’s supporters wave their national flag with the word ‘Women’ as they cheer during the Qatar 2022 World Cup group B football match between England and Iran at the Khalifa international stadium in Doha November 21, 2022. (Photo by Fadel Senna / AFP)

Two Iranians from Tehran who run a travel agency told me that although it was difficult for them to comment, a change was needed in Iran.

When asked what kind of change, one of them mimicked stroking an imaginary long beard, a subtle reference to Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khameini and the Shia clerics who control their country.

Another man began discussing the myriad problems in Iran before I could say “Times of Israel,” then stopped in mid-sentence to ask, “Which publication are you from?” At which point he concluded our interview with a flick of the wrist, adding curtly, “And we’re done, bye bye.”

It was the only instance of anything approaching hostility that I encountered when I identified myself as an Israeli journalist and spoke to Iranians. Most diplomatically declined to speak, some explaining it would be “problematic” for them.

A supporter of Iran waits for the start of the Qatar 2022 World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa international stadium in Doha on November 21, 2022. (Photo by Fadel Senna/AFP)

Even those who spoke up understandably chose not to be photographed or give their full names.

One fan who spoke up promptly was Navid Dozadeh, 22, a professional footballer for Al-Ahli club, which competes in Qatar’s top Stars League. Dozadeh’s family lives with him in Doha, although he has many relatives in Iran.

Al-Ahli’s attacker suggested that Iran’s strict hijab laws were frivolous, demonstrating with his hand the different parts of the head that the headscarf must cover.

Players of Iran listen to the national anthem ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup group B soccer match between England and Iran at the Khalifa international stadium in Doha on November 21, 2022. (FADEL SENNA/AFP)

“So if so, make it free [for women],” he said. “It’s bad. It hurts women and girls. There is no freedom for girls, they have to wear hijab. Some people don’t like wearing a hijab.

While women in Iran are required by law to wear Islamic headscarves, many Iranian women who entered the stadium on Monday were bare-headed.

Dozadeh said that if he were in Tehran, he would definitely join the protest movement. “Everyone is coming together,” he exclaimed.

The protest movement “will change everything. It will be like Europe. I hope so,” she added.

Inside the stadium, the entire Iranian football team, affectionately known by fans as Team Melli, chose to support the protest movement by refraining from singing the national anthem.

Iranian fans, men and women, could be heard in the stands, booing the anthem when it was played. In Iran, women are generally banned from entering football stadiums.

Some fans raised flags and banners with the protest slogan “Women. Life. Freedom.”

Videos allegedly shot in a Tehran neighborhood showed Iranian fans cheering during the match. According to some reports, however, the cheers were for England’s goals in a 6-2 win, not Iran.

“Iran is the only country in the World Cup where its people want its national football team to lose as the team does not represent the people but the regime,” Masih Alinejad, a prominent activist, posted on Twitter. for Iranian women’s rights.

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