DOHA, Qatar – It actually is possible to stand up for what’s right, even when it’s not in your best interests, at this World Cup.
Hours after European soccer authorities caved to FIFA’s threats over plans to show a small token of support for the LGBTQ community, Iran’s players risked the ire of their government by refusing to sing the national anthem before Monday’s game. The European teams backed off because they were oh, so afraid of jeopardizing their chances at the World Cup while the Iranian players went ahead despite knowing security forces back home have arrested, beaten, shot at and even killed those who’ve dared protest the death of Mahsa Amini.
“They should know that we are with them,” Ehsan Hajsafi, Iran’s captain, said Sunday.
Iran has been rocked by protests over the death of Amini, the 17-year-old who died in custody after being arrested for supposedly violating Iran’s conservative dress code. The uprisings began with other young women – their rallying cry of “Women, life, freedom” was displayed on a banner in the stands Monday – but they have since been joined by men and people of all ages and show no signs of ending.
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The response by the government has been brutal, and Iran’s players had to know their public display would put them in danger. Ali Daei, the captain of Iran’s team between 2000 and 2006, had his passport temporarily confiscated after he expressed his support for the protests. Hossein Mahini, another former player, was briefly arrested.
If that’s what happens to retired players, what punishment is in store for those who are the public face of Iran now. Yet there the players stood, solemn and silent, as the Iranian anthem played.
“They are kids,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said after the game.
Yes. And they showed more courage than those twice their age.
This World Cup has been a test of principles and almost everyone has failed miserably. FIFA has lost control of its own tournament, showing all the spine of a jellyfish as it allows Qatar to renege on its promises and defy basic human rights. The European teams have shown their commitment to equality and inclusion is a qualified one, abandoning their principles as soon as they realized there might be a cost for sticking with them.
Oh, they’ll all spout workshopped slogans and platitudes about unity and inclusion. But their actions have shown them to be as empty as the seats in the stadium at the end of the Qatar-Ecuador game.
“We can’t put our players in a position where they could face sporting sanctions,” officials from England, Wales, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland said in a joint statement Monday to explain why they were dropping the “OneLove” armbands, which feature a rainbow-colored heart.
“We were prepared to pay fines that would normally apply to breaches of kit regulations,” the statement added, “and had a strong commitment to wearing the armband.”
Not strong enough, though.
The thing about convictions is they don’t really mean anything unless you’re willing to defend them. Yes, the European teams could have been disadvantaged if their best player had a yellow card even before the tournament began, knowing a second would require him to sit out a game.
That’s assuming FIFA would really follow through on its threat, though.
Imagine England’s Harry Kane or Germany’s Manuel Neuer coming out of the tunnel wearing the OneLove armband. Or putting it on just before the pre-match handshake. Do you really think FIFA would book them when the world is watching? FIFA president Gianni Infantino might be Qatar’s puppet, as seen in FIFA’s “decision” to reverse course on selling alcoholic beer at stadiums two days before the tournament began, but even he has to know how toxic that would make the governing body’s brand.
The global uproar if Kane or Neuer or one of the other captains did miss a knockout game and their team lost would be catastrophic for FIFA. This World Cup, already tarnished in the eyes of some fans, would forever carry an asterisk, and future tournaments would be diminished.
But the Europeans weren’t willing to take that chance. They bowed to FIFA, just as FIFA has to Qatar. It was left to Iran, the players who have the most to lose, to remind us of what integrity actually means.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.