Supporters of the Iranian government confront protesters at the World Cup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Tensions rose Friday in Iran’s second World Cup match as supporters of Iran’s government harassed those protesting against it and stadium security confiscated flags, T-shirts and other items expressing support for the protest movement. which dominated the Islamic Republic.

Some fans were prevented by stadium security from bringing pre-revolutionary Persian flags to the match against Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium. Others carrying such flags were ripped from their hands by pro-government Iranian fans, who also shouted abuse at fans wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan of the protest movement gripping the country, “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

Unlike their first match against England, Iran’s players sang the national anthem before the match, while some fans in the stadium wept, booed and whistled.

The national team has come under heavy scrutiny for any statements or gestures about the nationwide protests Iran has been crushing for weeks.

Screaming fights broke out outside the stadium between fans shouting “Women, Life, Freedom” and others shouting “Islamic Republic!”

Small crowds of men surrounded three different women who were giving interviews about the protests to foreign media outside the stadium, disrupting the broadcast as they angrily chanted, “Islamic Republic of Iran!” Many female fans looked shaken as supporters of the Iranian government shouted at them in Farsi and filmed them in close-up on their phones.

One 35-year-old woman named Maryam, who like other Iranian fans declined to give her last name for fear of government reprisals, began to cry as screaming men honking horns surrounded her and filmed her face. The words “Woman Life Freedom” were painted on her face.

“We want to raise awareness about his arrest and the women’s rights movement. Simple,” said Maryam, who lives in London but is originally from Tehran. “I’m not here to fight anyone, but people have been attacking me and calling me a terrorist. I’m here to say that football doesn’t care if people are killed in the streets.”

Maryam and her friends wore hats bearing the fancy name of former Iranian soccer player Voria Ghafouri, who has criticized Iranian authorities and was arrested in Iran on Thursday on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda. She said supporters of the Iranian government took their hats off.

Ghafouri, who is Kurdish, was a star member of Iran’s 2018 World Cup squad but was surprisingly not named in this year’s squad for Qatar.

“Obviously the match has become very politicized this week. You can see people from the same country hating each other,” said Mustafa, a 40-year-old Iran fan who also declined to give his last name. “I think the arrest of Voria also affected society in Iran a lot.”

Furious protesters in Iran are venting their anger over social and political repression and the state-mandated headscarf, or hijab, for women. The demonstrations, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16 in the custody of the local morality police, quickly escalated into calls for the downfall of the Islamic Republic itself. At least 419 people have been killed since the protests began, according to the monitoring group Activists for Human Rights in Iran.

The unrest has overshadowed the start of Iran’s World Cup campaign. The opening match against England on Monday was the scene of protests as anti-government fans waved signs and chanted in the stands. Ahead of that match, which Iran lost 6-2, its players remained silent while their national anthem was played and did not celebrate their two goals. On Friday, they sang the national anthem and celebrated wildly when they scored in a 2-0 win against Wales.

Ayeh Shams of the United States, who was at the match against Wales with her brother, said security confiscated her flag because it had the word “women” on it.

“We are first generation Americans. Our parents were born in Iran. We are only here to enjoy the games and provide a platform for the Iranian people who are fighting against the Islamic regime,” Shams said.

Zeinlabda Arwa, a security guard at the stadium, confirmed that authorities had been ordered to confiscate anything but the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“Whether you’re talking about Iran, Qatar or any country, you can just take a normal flag,” she said.

An angry group of supporters of the Iranian government shouted at Elyas Doerr, a 16-year-old Iranian living in Arizona who wore a Persian flag as a cloak until he took it off and put it in a bag. “They don’t like that it’s a political statement,” he said, adding that other Iranian fans have approached him to say they appreciate the gesture.

Before Friday’s game, Iranians chanted anti-government slogans from rooftops in Tehran. Scattered protests also broke out in Kurdish towns in the west of the country and across the central city of Isfahan on Thursday.

Iran’s state television dedicated its main news bulletin to Iran’s football skills on Friday, wishing the national team luck against Wales and airing a montage of Iran’s goals throughout history.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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