Iranian football star Yahya Golmohammdi has criticized the country's national team after it held a controversial meeting with the president before heading off to Qatar for the World Cup.
The gathering took place at President Ebrahim Raisi’s office on November 15, as Iranian security forces have cracked down hard on a nationwide protest movement triggered by the September death of a 22-year-old woman in the custody of morality police. At least 326 people have been killed, including 43 children, according to one human rights organization, and thousands of others have been arrested.
Golmohammdi took to Instagram to say that the meeting “was the best opportunity to get the voice of a mourning nation heard."
"In the field of loyalty, you cannot get more than zero," the football coach continued.
Hours earlier, pictures showing two players, Roozbeh Cheshmi and Alireza Biranvand, bowing to Raisi went viral.
Football is deeply politicized in Iran, and political interference in sports has been the norm soon after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Top athletes are expected to follow the regime’s line on all matters, including those unrelated to sport, or at the very least remain silent.
Several athletes in several sports have refused to celebrate their victories or sing the national anthem during competitions since nationwide erupted in September.
During the meeting with Raisi, Biranvand, the national football team’s goalkeeper, said: "I am very happy that we are here with the other boys. We are also grateful to you for inviting us and this is an honor. Thank you again."
Another player, Vahid Amiri, told the Iranian president: "Our request is to keep supporting us." Amiri has previously called the anti-government protesters "rioters" and thanked police efforts to suppress the widespread unrest.
Over the weekend, Iranian football star Ali Karimi asked members of the national football team to "choose the right side of history" after a government official suggested that athletes who refuse to sing the national anthem should be expelled from their teams.
Iran’s national football team faces tough matches at the start of World Cup. Iran will face England, Wales and the United States in Group B.