On Sunday, after his Iran side defeated Uruguay 1-0 in a friendly, Sardar Azmoun took to Instagram and wrote: "Because of the restrictive laws placed on us in the national team I am not supposed to speak out... I know I risk being sent home, but I can't take it anymore! You will never be able to erase this from your conscience. Shame on you! You kill easily. Long live Iranian women!"
The reference was clear. Azmoun, like many Iranians, was incensed by the police response to the protests that have rocked Iran -- from the metropolis of Teheran to the smallest rural villages -- following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was held after being apprehended by the so-called "morality police." She was 22. According to her brother, who was with her when she was arrested, she was told that she wasn't wearing her hijab, or headscarf, in an appropriate manner.
Azmoun, who has more than 5 million followers, saw his post go viral almost immediately. In a country -- and a national team -- already on edge and playing in sheltered, almost surreal conditions, as my colleague Mark Ogden reported last week, it poured gasoline on the fire of those wanting change. On Monday night, when Iran played Senegal in another friendly, drawing 1-1, the Iranian players made a point of walking out in black jackets before kickoff, which many saw as a sign of protest.
The 27-year-old forward, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, was feted as a hero both back home and by the Iranian diaspora around the world. His post was later removed and then his account was deleted. The account resurfaced Wednesday, and this time Azmoun appeared to have done a 180-degree turn.
"I have to apologize to the players of the national team because I caused my dear friends to be annoyed some supporters even insulted the national team," he wrote. "This was not fair in any way and it was my mistake. I blame myself and I am ashamed in front of all the members of the national team and the technical staff who caused the order and peace of the team to be disrupted."
What gives? We don't know, though many will draw their own conclusions. What's not in dispute is that those who insist that politics has no place in sports live somewhere between a place called denial and the hole that ostriches stick their heads in. It's already here and has been for a very long time. Because, simply put, few endeavours garner as much attention or offer as large a stage as football, particularly international football. And nothing is bigger than the World Cup that Iran will be participating this November in Qatar, where they're in a group with the United States, England and Wales.
The elephant in the room is what happens when Iran kick off their World Cup campaign against England on Nov. 21. Assuming Azmoun and his colleagues haven't suddenly changed their minds (he was one of only two who voiced their views so clearly on social media, but many others blacked out their profiles in solidarity), what do they do when they step onto the pitch with billions watching around the world?
And, if the demonstrations aren't quelled -- you pray not by vicious government repression, but by more understanding, tolerance and respect for women's rights -- how does the government react? What does the host nation, Qatar, a neighbour and, historically, close ally of Iran, do? And, last but definitely not least, how does FIFA react?
Let's take the last two, because they're more straightforward. Qatar, like Iran, is also a Muslim country ruled by a royal family that has come under scrutiny for human rights violations, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues and migrant workers' rights. But there is no "morality police" in Qatar -- at least not of the kind they have in Iran -- and Muslim women aren't forced to wear headscarves (though many do so by choice or custom). Iran is not in a position to compel Qatar to do anything and even less so while the world is watching, and it has pledged to be welcoming and inclusive (at least for the duration of the tournament).
As for FIFA, they do have statutes banning slogans, messages or actions of a political, religious or personal nature. But what was once a stringent stance has softened over the years as societal mores have changed. A year ago, when Norway and Germany displayed a human rights message aimed squarely at Qatar, FIFA declined to take actions, saying they "believe in freedom of speech and in the power of football as a force for good." And when players began taking a knee or displaying support for protesters following the death of George Floyd, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said that the players should be met with "applause and not punishment."
Throw in the fact that the captains of nine European countries at the World Cup will be playing with armbands displaying a rainbow flag and the message "One Love," and it's hard to see action being taken. (And while the armbands don't explicitly call out Qatar for its treatment of migrant workers or the safety of LGBTQ communities, this news release from the Football Association in England leaves little doubt as to what the message is.)
Which leaves the massive question mark hanging over the players and the Iranian government. Of the 27 players called up by coach Carlos Queiroz for the past two friendlies, 16 currently play their club football outside of Iran and a further seven have at some point in their careers played abroad. So, it's not surprising if many identify with the protesters and their calls for women's rights: They have direct experience of another way of life. And that, coupled with the massive popularity of "Team Melli" (as the Iranian national side is known) and the huge platform it gives them, makes them a potential threat to the more conservative elements in the Iranian regime.
On the one hand, the vast majority have family, friends and business interests in Iran and could face repercussions back home if they take a public stand in Qatar. On the other hand, it may be what tips the balance towards a fairer, less repressive society for women, and they may never have such a public platform ever again. These are the pressures facing Team Melli, six weeks removed from the World Cup. Just don't tell them politics and social messaging have no place in football. That ship sailed a long time ago.