Iran Wins a Big Game, but Cheering Is Out of Bounds


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Iranian soccer fans held up a flag before a soccer match between Iran and South Korea in Tehran on Tuesday. Clerics urged fans not to cheer for their team during the match, which coincided with one of the most solemn religious holidays in Iran.

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Vahid Salemi/Associated Press

TEHRAN — They won the match and mourned.

In a collision of international soccer scheduling and the eve of Ashura, Shiite Islam’s most solemn and sorrowful holiday, Iran played South Korea on Tuesday in an Asian Football Confederation qualifying match held at Tehran’s 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium.

The Iranians beat the South Koreans 1-0, normally a cause for rapt joy for the home-team crowd. But clerics and state officials had strongly urged the fans to avoid cheering for their players or celebrating the victory, which was deemed an insult to religious values.

In a compromise, the religious authorities said the match could proceed if the stadium were turned into a place of mourning, with black banners commemorating the death of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, more than 1,300 years ago.

State media told spectators to wear black. Instead of chanting a soccer cheer — “What will Iran do? Destroy them!” — they were urged to shout the mournful cry, “Ya Hossein!,” or “Oh Hussein!” if Iran scored.

Instead of pre-match Islamic pop singers who sing about love and God, two famous religious chanters, Majid Bani-Fatemi and Sadegh Marashi, performed before the crowds. They told the story of the death of Abolfazl, Hussein’s loyal friend who was killed trying to bring water for the children of the small band that accompanied the prophet’s grandson on his final stand against his enemies.

Commemorating the violent death of Hussein in 680, an event that solidified the split between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam, is one of the most important religious rites in Iran. Believers organize processions where some whip themselves with chains to the beat of drums. Men and women gather during long nights of religious singing about Hussein’s death, with everybody bursting out in tears.

Soccer, a passion of modern-day Iran, is definitely not part of the tradition.

Angered clerics exhorted the government to cancel the match, warning that instead of lamenting the death of Hussein, people might cheer for their earthly national team.

Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a well-known hard-line cleric, fulminated in a speech that traditional values needed to be protected. “It would be better to cancel the match than to allow such disrespect to happen,” he said, according to the semiofficial Islamic Students’ News Agency.

But cancellation would have almost certainly cost Iran its qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as the team would have been penalized by FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, for not showing up.

When the players entered the field, some fans started clapping, but were swiftly covered up on television by a banner that seemed to come out of nowhere stating “Ya Hossein” a live broadcast on state television showed.

The big test came early in the match, when Iran scored. There were some cheers, but they were quickly drowned by the religious chanters booming over the stadium loudspeakers: “Oh Hussein, Oh Hussein, God willing we will score two more goals!”

The few South Korean fans in the stadium had been told not to bring any instruments or other noisemakers out of respect for local customs, state media reported. Photographs on the messaging app Telegram showed a dozen fans in a special section of the stadium, looking rather forlorn.

State television’s halftime commentary was replaced by religious chants exalting Hussein and Abolfazl. All commercials were canceled.

When the match concluded, the broadcast wasted no time with the customary commentary and cut going immediately to live coverage of a mournful lamentation in the city of Zanjan.

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