Supporters of Iran’s government confront protesters at the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Tensions rose during Iran’s second match at the World Cup on Friday as fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting and stadium security seized flags, T-shirts and other items who expressed their support for the protest movement that has gripped the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were stopped by stadium security from bringing in Persian pre-revolutionary flags for the game against Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags were ripped from their hands by pro-government Iran fans, who also shouted insults at fans wearing T-shirts with the slogan of the protest movement gripping the country: “Woman, life, freedom”.

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

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

Screaming matches broke out in lines outside the stadium between fans shouting “Women, Life, Freedom” and others shouting back “The Islamic Republic!”

Small groups of men surrounded three different women and gave interviews about the protests to foreign media outside the stadium. They disrupted broadcasts while angrily chanting, “The Islamic Republic of Iran!” Many female fans seemed shocked when Iranian government supporters yelled at them in Farsi and filmed them up close on their phones.

A 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iran fans refused to give her last name for 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 make people aware of his arrest and of the women’s rights movement. Simple,” says Maryam, who lives in London but is originally from Tehran. “I’m not here to fight anyone, but people are attacking me and calling me a terrorist. All I want to say here is that football doesn’t matter if people are being killed in the street.”

Maryam and her friends wore hats bearing the name of an outspoken Iranian former footballer Voria Ghafouri, who had criticized Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. She said supporters of the Iranian government had taken their hats off their heads.

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

“Obviously the game was very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iran fan who also refused to give his last name. “I think Voria’s arrest has also had a lot of impact on society in Iran.”

Angry protesters in Iran have expressed anger at social and political repression and the state-mandated headscarf or hijab for women. The demonstrations, spurred by the September 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police, have quickly turned into calls for the demise of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests broke out, according to the monitoring group of Human Rights Activists in Iran.

The unrest has overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. Monday’s opening game against England was the scene of protests as anti-government fans waved signs and chanted in the stands. Before that match, which Iran lost 6-2, the players remained silent while their national anthem played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday, they sang the national anthem and celebrated when they scored in the 2-0 win against Wales.

Ayeh Shams from the United States, who was with her brother at the game against Wales, said guards confiscated her flag because it had the word “women” on it.

“We are first-generation Americans. Our parents were born in Iran. We are only here to enjoy the games and provide a platform for the Iranian people who are fighting against the Islamic regime,” Shams said.

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

“Whether you are talking about Iran or Qatar or any other country, you are only allowed to bring the normal flag,” she said.

An angry group of Iranian government supporters yelled at Elyas Doerr, a 16-year-old Iranian living in Arizona who wore the Persian flag as a cape, until he took it off and put 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.

Before Friday’s game, Iranians chanted anti-government slogans from rooftops in Tehran. Scattered protests also erupted in Kurdish towns in the west of the country and in the central city of Isfahan on Thursday.

Iran’s state television on Friday devoted its main news bulletin to Iranians’ football achievements, wishing the national team luck against Wales and broadcasting a montage of Iranian goals throughout history.

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

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