Iranian government supporters confront protesters at the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Tensions were high at Iran’s second match at the World Cup on Friday as fans supporting the Iranian government harassed protesters against it and stadium security seized flags, T-shirts and other items expressing support for the protest movement that has gripped the Islamic Republic.

Some supporters were prevented by stadium security from carrying pre-revolution Persian flags to the match against Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags had them snatched from their hands by pro-government Iranian fans, who also shouted abuse at fans wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan of the country’s gripping protest movement, “Women, Life, Freedom”.

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

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

Screaming matches erupted in lines outside the stadium amid fans yelling “Women, life, freedom” and others shouting “The Islamic Republic!”

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

After Iran’s 2-0 triumph, crowds of Iranian fans waving madly the national flags poured out of the stadium. They assaulted a group of protesters who were holding up photos of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old whose Sept. 16 dead in the custody of the morality police first sparked protests, shouting “Vittoria!” to stifle the chants of Amini’s name.

A 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iranian fans refused to give her last name out of 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 raise awareness of her arrest and 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 attacked me and called me a terrorist. All I’m here to say is football doesn’t matter if people get killed on the street.”

Maryam and her friends wore hats emblazoned with the name of a former Iranian footballer Voria Ghafouri, who attacked Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. You said supporters of the Iranian government had taken their hats off their heads.

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

“It is obvious that the match has become very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iranian football fan who also declined to give his last name. “I think Voria’s judgment has influenced Iranian society a lot as well.”

Furious protesters in Iran vented their anger at social and political repression and the state-imposed headscarf, or hijab, for women. The demonstrations quickly turned into calls for the fall of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests erupted, according to the monitoring group Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The turmoil overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. The opening match against England on Monday was the site of protests as anti-government fans waved placards and chanted in the stands. Before that match, which Iran lost 6-2, its players remained silent as the national anthem played and did not celebrate their two goals. They sang the anthem together on Friday and celebrated wildly as they scored twice against Wales.

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

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

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

“Whether you’re talking about Iran or Qatar or any other country, you are only allowed to carry the regular flag,” he 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 cloak, until he took it off and placed 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 reveal her name for fear of reprisals, scrambled after the match to retrieve her cap and flag that had been confiscated by stadium security. She said Qatari police ordered her to erase the names of Iranian protesters killed and arrested by security forces that she had written on her arms and chest, at the behest of Iranian government supporters. At the game, only traces of ink remained on her skin that had been rubbed.

“Today’s football experience was the most intimidating I’ve ever been in, before and after the game,” he said. She described dozens of men who surrounded her and tried to smother her face with their Iranian flags, tearing up her marks while Qatari security stood by.

“I’m not interested in winning, to be honest. It’s not my priority.”

After the match, Iranian state television broadcast patriotic songs and showed footage of people erupting in cheers across the country.

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

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