In apparent solidarity with the anti-regime protests currently gripping Iran, the Iranian men’s national soccer team refused to sing the national anthem before their opening match in the 2022 World Cup, which is being hosted by Qatar. The silent protest reverberated widely in China. Many were stirred by the team’s protest and Iranian fans’ demonstrations in the stands during the match. At The Guardian, Patrick Wintour wrote about the soccer team’s protest and Iranian spectators’ in-stadium protests:
Not a single member of the Iranian team sang their country’s national anthem at the start of their World Cup match with England, in an attempt to distance themselves from their government.
One official on the touchline sang, only serving to highlight his isolation, but there was heavy booing of the anthem by the large Iranian crowd inside the stadium.
Some of the spectators held placards saying “Women, life and freedom”. Others chanted the name of Ali Karimi, the Iranian former player and coach who has become an outspoken supporter of the protests and who on Saturday called for Iranians to take to the streets over the way in which the army had poured into the Iranian Kurdish town of Mahabad. [Source]
Iranian state media censored all mention of the protest. Chinese state media similarly avoided mention of the protest. China Daily, a state-controlled outlet, shared a photo of a tearful Iranian fan on Weibo implying that she had been moved to tears by the anthem itself: “#FemaleIranianFootballFanMovedToTearsByNationalAnthem During tonight’s #ENGvsIRN matchup, the broadcast picked up on a female Iranian football fan applauding while moved to tears as the Iranian anthem was played in the stadium.” Elsewhere on Weibo, however, there was a strong response to the in-stadium protests, with some moved by the bravery of the players and fans, and others piling insults on one nationalistic fan who compared the protestors to Hong Kongers and implied the United States was pulling strings behind the scenes:
路尼尼finale：Brave people always shine.
上海王松松律师：They couldn’t care less about the punishment they’ll receive upon returning home after the match. Respect.
能量守恒定律_e：Freedom is never given; it has to be fought for, constantly.
And a negative comment:
西城harris：So dumb. Just like those Hong Kongers who got used, and then thanked their daddy, Uncle Sam.
Replies to 西城harris’ comment:
Whitebirch1995：Ignorance is the only soil that will support autocracy, and you’ve just confirmed it again. Thanks for the history lesson, Yuan Tengfei.
孔童鞋你好：Wow, what an intellect! You see it more clearly than all seven-million-plus Hong Kongers.
Karina_椰奶椰奶：Well said! Your reward is a lifetime under lockdown and, since you’re not allowed to leave the house, a hundred screenings of The Battle at Lake Changjin.
Kllsy_：Well said. Your reward is a beating from the morality police every time you step outside. [Chinese]
The protests inspired a number of reflection pieces on WeChat. The public WeChat account @有马体 published an essay that took its title from Xi Jinping’s infamous verdict on why the Soviet Union collapsed: “Nobody was man enough.” The essay, “Twenty-Two People Were Man Enough,” praised both the Iranian and English football squads for their pre-match protests. England’s players took a knee before the match to protest racism, a tradition dating back to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. England’s captain Harry Kane did not wear the OneLove rainbow armband, a gesture of support for people of all sexual and gender backgrounds, that he had sported during matches earlier this year after FIFA, the international soccer governing body, threatened sanctions against those wearing the armband. (Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and punishable by imprisonment.) The admiring WeChat essay concluded: “Soccer is all the more magical for the charisma of its athletes. Great heroes ken a morality beyond the laws of men. These are adversaries worthy of each others’ respect, and ours. Twenty-two people were man enough. They’ve lived up to the name.”
The film-focused WeChat account @导筒directube also wrote about the protests, focusing on Iranian actresses, actors, and directors who had spoken out in favor of the protestors: “Together, let us gaze upon the courage and spirit of the Iranian people as they fight for freedom, on the pitch and on the silver screen.” Commentator Wei Zhou took the football protests as an opportunity to reflect on Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books” and the nuances of class, the distinction between “modernity” and “Westernization,” and the politicization of literature. As to the correct reading of “Lolita” in Tehran, Wei Zhou offered no conclusion: “Even in Tehran, readings of ‘Lolita’ differ depending on the person. In the end, the changes in Iranian society over the coming years will prove who was reading it correctly.”