Ehsan Hajsafi is the first Iranian player at the World Cup in Qatar to support the protests at home

Defender Ehsan Hajsafi on Sunday became the first member of the Iran national team to speak out at the World Cup in Qatar in apparent support for anti-government protests at home, saying the players should be the voice of those suffering.

More than two months of protests in Iran, sparked by the death of a 22-year-old woman in custody by the country’s vice squad, have presented religious leaders with one of the boldest challenges since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Iranian national team was in the spotlight ahead of the World Cup, eager to see if the players would use football’s flagship event as a platform to show solidarity with the protest movement.

“They should know that we are with them. And we support them. And we sympathize with them in terms of conditions,” Hajsafi, who plays for AEK Athens, said at a press conference.

“We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy,” he said. “We’re here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be their voice or not respect them.”

The wave of unrest erupted in September after Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini died in vice squad custody for wearing what were considered “inappropriate” clothes. The Iranian government blames foreign enemies for the crisis.

Some Iranian athletes have made gestures taken by protesters as a sign of support, including not singing the national anthem or celebrating victories on the field.

According to the activist news agency HRANA, 410 demonstrators had been killed in the unrest by Friday, including 58 minors.

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Tehran.

Other members of the team have so far avoided discussing politics in public.

Players Karim Ansarifard and Morteza Pouraliganji on Friday refused to answer questions about solidarity with women in Iran. On Thursday, midfielder Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who plays for Dutch club Feyenoord, suggested such questions were a ploy to distract the side.

However, Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun was picked for the team despite having publicly supported the protests in the past.

Some activists have spoken out against the national team for not doing enough, urging Iranians to gather in main city and town squares across Iran on Monday night.

A social media post, unverified by Reuters, said: “No matter what result the hated Islamic Republic team achieves, we will gather in the streets to celebrate the defeat of the Islamic Republic team while we chant revolutionary slogans.” to sing.”

A banner of the Iran national team was set on fire in Tehran, videos on social media showed.

Hajsafi said there was no denying the situation was not good and he hoped the national team could beat England in the Group B opener on Monday and bring some joy to the people.

“Whatever we have is from them and we have to fight, we have to do our best, score goals and represent the people,” he said.

“I hope that conditions will change in terms of people’s expectations.”

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