BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran's national soccer team received a subdued welcome home after its World Cup defeat against the United States, a match played against the backdrop of ongoing anti-government protests in Iran. One Iranian man was shot dead celebrating the American victory.
The players returned from Qatar late Wednesday, a day their 1-0 loss. Anti-government protesters, considering the team a symbol of the regime, had celebrated the loss in some Iranian cities with fireworks and cheers.
One man was shot dead by Iranian security forces in northwest Iran for honking his car horn in support of the U.S. victory, the Oslo-based rights monitor Iran Human Rights reported on Thursday.
Iran's treatment of the players will likely be scrutinized because they refrained from singing the country's national anthem during their opening World Cup match. Many considered the move a show of solidarity with the protests. The team did sing the anthem in subsequent matches.
The national team was received by a few dozen fans at Tehran's international airport late Wednesday, with people cheering and waving the Iranian flag.
Despite the ostensible show of solidarity, the players also face criticism from anti-government protesters who have chided the team for not being more vocal about the regime's brutal crackdown on demonstrations.
An image of players bowing in the presence of President Ebrahim Raisi before setting off to the tournament was widely criticized by activists on social media.
Mehran Samak, 27, was shot dead after honking his car in support of the U.S. win after Tuesday's match in the city of Bandar Anzali, in north west Iran. IHR reported, he was “shot in the head by state forces when he went out to celebrate the Islamic Republic’s loss.”
Samak happened to be a childhood friend of Iranian midfielder Saeed Ezatollahi, who mourned his death on his social media. But again he received criticism from activists for not explictly stating Samak had been killed by regime forces.
Iranian officials acknowledged but downplayed Iranians celebrating the U.S. win. Gen. Hossein Salami, chief of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, said those who had celebrated were doing so on “behalf of the enemies," adding “it is not important to us.” His comments appeared in the semi-official Tasnim news agency.
Abbas Salehi, former minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance and editor-in-chief of Ettelaat newspaper, appointed by the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a tweet said: “Iran’s defeat in the game against America was bitter, but even more bitter was the happiness of some people.”
Salehi added we “have four years to compensate for the first, but we don’t have much time for the second.”
Striker Sardar Azmoun told reporters he was not satisfied with his performance in the last match. It was the sixth time Iran has participated in the World Cup.
Iran was eliminated from the tournament in Qatar following the loss to the U.S. on Tuesday, in a politically charged match that saw the players scrambling to score a goal in the last remaining minutes of the game.
The protests first erupted in September, following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran’s morality police in the capital, Tehran.
The protests quickly morphed into the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since its establishment in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian authorities have blamed foreign actors, chiefly the U.S., for orchestrating the protest movement, but have provided no evidence.