The FIFA World Cup in Qatar has soccer enthusiasts scrutinizing every game, analyzing offensive and deference tactics, attacks, passing and teamwork while they wildly cheer for their favorite team.

But inside Iran, the focus on soccer and the World Cup is quite different. Their national team’s performance at this year’s World Cup was overshadowed by the legendary soccer stars supporting Iran’s protest movement. With the arrest and death of a 22-year-old woman in Tehran, Mahsa Amini, who had purportedly violated the head-covering laws of the country, protests had erupted in September. The government’s brutal suppression has resulted in over 450 deaths, thousands of injuries, and nearly 30,000 protestors jailed. 

Many Iranians expected their national team to support the protests by using their very public opportunity in Qatar to condemn the suppression. They were disappointed that their country’s team failed to emulate their legendary heroes.

Opinion: The Iranian protests are a battle between generations

In contrast, since the beginning of the protests in September, Iranian soccer stars have encouraged and supported the demonstrations. With over 20 million followers across various social media platforms, these superstars have been instrumental in keeping the protest movement alive — creating a virtual opposition party through interviews and a vigorous online presence. They have successfully countered the government-owned media attempts to downplay or discredit the demonstrations. They post videos documenting cases of brutality by the security forces, serving as ambassadors for their young fans who oppose the tyrannical regime of the Islamic Republic.

When Ali Daei, a former captain of the Iranian national team and legendary forward, issued a vociferous statement against the regime, the Iranian government seized his properties and businesses. But that wasn’t the worst. “I have received numerous threats against myself and my family in recent months and days from some organizations, medias and unknown individuals,” said Daei in a post. He rebuked the government, recalling that as a child, he was taught “honor, patriotism and freedom. What do you want to achieve with such threats?” 

Daei turned down invitations from FIFA officials to attend the World Cup, which opened on Nov. 22, telling protesters, “I declined the official invitation of FIFA and the Qatar Football Federation to attend the World Cup with my wife and daughters, to be with you in my country and express my sympathy to all the families who have lost their loved ones.” Later he released a video of a woman removing her headscarf and dancing. It became a symbol for the protests throughout the country.

Why tensions are rising between the Iranian and U.S. soccer teams ahead of their World Cup match

Another soccer legend, Ali Karimi, known as “The Magician” or the Asian Maradona, has proven to be a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime with his fiery rhetoric and ardent support of the protests. He was the first prominent Iranian figure to blame the death of Amini on Iran’s morality police. He faulted the foreign media’s failure to cover the protests adequately, saying “As you know, the people of Iran are currently going through a very difficult time. The international media largely ignores our struggles. Right now, there are more important issues for me than Football, and I want to be with my people and be their voice.” 

Karimi advised Iran’s military not to get involved in the crackdown: “You are the soldiers of the motherland and responsible for protecting the lives of our citizens, not to take them away.” He encourages protesters to stay determined: “If we take one step back and fail to unite, the regime will celebrate by dancing on our dead bodies.”

In addition, Karimi acts as a clearing house of information. When fires were set at the notorious Evin prison, where the regime holds protesters, he sent out alerts. A sea of protesters descended upon the prison, gaining the attention of major news outlets, including CNN, Reuters, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Since Amini’s death, Kurdistan has seen its largest protests in recent history. This was because she was Kurdish. Voria Ghafuri, a Kurdish soccer legend and a former captain for Tehran’s major football club, Esteghlal, has a huge social media following. He, too, is an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities. He has objected to a longstanding ban on female spectators at soccer matches and has called for an end to the violent crackdowns on protests in Kurdish region.

When Ghafuri was arrested on charges of “incitement against the regime,” several of Iran’s most prominent coaches and athletes came to his defense. In particular, Ali Karimi documented Ghafuri’s situation online. Finally, the authorities relented and let him post bail. His arrest had the ironic effect of increasing his fame. People admired him for not backing down and willingly risking imprisonment.

Perspective: The autocrats’ dilemma

Arresting a popular soccer player was an audacious move by the Iranian government seemingly meant to send a message to Iran’s national team. Although they refused to sing the national anthem before their first match, in their next match they sang it reluctantly. Their reluctance showed. They looked funereal. What kind of pressure had they endured from the authorities?

Their elimination loss came on Nov. 29, five days after the arrest of Voria Ghafuri and three days after his release. It seemed like a barely disguised threat for what could await the returning players. The team was caught between the displeasure of both the demonstrators and their government. In their defense, they were trying to win World Cup games in a nearly impossible situation. Did any other team go home wondering if they would be arrested? Although the national team’s support was weaker than many wished, it is understandable.

The solidarity shown by Iranian soccer stars is truly inspiring and deserves to be supported by sports organizations in the United States. They have sacrificed their personal well-being in order to serve as role models in the fight against dictatorship. In the words of Nelson Mandela “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.” 

 Bahman Baktiari is the executive director of the Baskerville Institute.