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Iranians feel conflicted about watching the World Cup amid protests at home


On Tuesday, the U.S. faces Iran in the World Cup in a make-or-break match for both team in order to progress to the next round. But despite the importance of this upcoming game, some Iranians have conflicting views over how to watch their beloved soccer team as they compete in the tournament taking place in Qatar, right across the Persian Gulf. That's because, in Iran, security forces continue their violent months-long crackdown against protesters taking part in massive anti-government demonstrations.

According the monitoring group Human Rights Activists in Iran, more than 440 people have been killed and more than 18,000 arrested in protests that are largely led by women. Notably, Iran's team members sang their national anthem before taking the field on Friday, instead of remaining silent, as they did several days ago. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report on how the spirit of protest is playing out around the competition.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: There's no doubt that Iranians love soccer and revere their national soccer team, which makes this scene posted to Twitter a few nights ago so extraordinary.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KENYON: In the northwestern Iranian city of Zanjan, people cheered and danced, actually celebrating their team's crushing 6-2 loss to England. Iranians who watched the match in England, meanwhile, were even more outspoken, chanting, death to Khamenei. That's Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

KENYON: In this clip posted to social media, one woman also says, quote, "Damn you, Islamic Republic. You've even deprived us of watching our team." Scenes such as these show the dramatic changes in Iran since the death of a young woman in police custody in September after being detained for alleged improper attire. That sparked what's been called the biggest challenge to the Islamic Republic since its creation. It's hard to fathom now, but Iran even tried to get Qatar to share some hosting duties in this year's World Cup, an effort that went nowhere.

Like other Iranians interviewed for this story, Davoud, an architect from northeast Iran, agreed to an interview if his family name isn't used. He says he's worried about repercussions for speaking to the foreign media. Contacted via the internet, he says those pushing for some kind of co-hosting deal with Qatar must have been dreaming.

DAVOUD: (Through interpreter) Since it was announced that Qatar would host the event, Iranian authorities started announcing empty promises, useless lies and illusionary agreements with Qatar. I personally never believed these lies, like all their other promises.

KENYON: Touraj, an Iranian fan from the northern city of Rasht, says the government blundered by building up people's hopes. He says there will be a reckoning now.

TOURAJ: (Through interpreter) There is going to be massive public regret when we face our country. The size of the smallest province of Iran has such high achievements from World Cup, and our share is zero.

KENYON: Sum wonder if Iranians will even cheer on their team when they take on the U.S. squad on Tuesday. Davoud says he'd love to see Iran beat the Americans but not because of national pride. On the contrary, he hopes it might generate even more enthusiasm for the anti-government protests that have swept the country.

DAVOUD: (Through interpreter) Yes, I am certainly going to watch the Iran-U.S. match. About the result, I hope for a win because culturally, such wins are a good reason to gather people on the streets.

KENYON: The team did try to show solidarity with the protesters when players refused to sing the Iranian national anthem before the match with England. But some protesters say it's impossible for Iran to compete in this cup without being seen as representing the regime in Tehran. Even so, Touraj says he's looking forward to the Iran team taking on the U.S..

TOURAJ: (Through interpreter) I believe that every international event, especially on the scale of the World Cup, is an opportunity to be seen and heard, both to the spectators present in the stadium in Qatar and on the streets of Iran after the match.

KENYON: He thinks that if the government thought the World Cup would boost its reputation, the protesters at home will remind the world of the grim reality in Iran. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.