The history of sport is littered with symbolic political gestures, but few have been as brave as the stand taken by some players on Iran’s national soccer team on June 17. In a World Cup qualifying match in South Korea, at least six Iranian players wore green wristbands in a defiant show of support for opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, including team captain Mohammed Ali Karimi.
Green, the campaign color of Mousavi, has been worn by his supporters during rallies in Tehran both before and after last week’s presidential election.
The match was broadcast live on Iranian state television with millions in the soccer-mad nation tuning in. Both the players and coaching staff surely knew that their protest would be big news in Iran, where social-networking services like Twitter have been used to spread the latest protest news.
The players took off the bands for the second half of the game. Some reports suggested that the Iranian Football Federation ordered their removal.
Outside the stadium in Seoul, before the game kicked off, dozens of Iranian fans staged a mini-protest of their own, unfurling a banner that read “Go to Hell, Dictator” and chanting, “Compatriots, we will be with you to the end with the same heart.” The banner was spotted again during the game, along with signs reading “Where Is My Vote?” (a slogan widely displayed on June 16 during street demonstrations in Tehran) and Iranian national flags with “Free Iran” written across them.
It’s unknown whether the game was watched by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he is known to be a passionate soccer fan who closely follows the fortunes of Iran’s national team. Indeed, at a press conference after he was declared the winner of last week’s election, Ahmadinejad dismissed the protests in Iran’s streets by comparing the demonstrators to soccer fans upset over a loss. “Some believed they would win, and then they got angry,” he said. “It is like the passions after a football match.”
The passions of Iranian fans couldn’t have been helped much by the results of the game. It ended in a 1-1 draw, putting a serious dent in Iran’s qualification hopes.