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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Amid disruptions, England’s win over Iran was the easy part

While many protests were shut down by World Cup organizers, two people in attendance held signs protesting the Iranian government’s treatment of women.

By John Branch

England opened the first full day of the World Cup with an easy rout of Iran, but tensions tightened everywhere else, off the field

The day after the opening ceremony for the much-maligned tournament and host, there were squelched protests and logistical nightmares. More than anything, it was made clear Monday that FIFA would not indulge those who wanted to bring their causes to this event or to this country in the days and weeks to come.

Silent protests were quashed in different ways, first as FIFA opened the day by effectively banning the planned use of a captain’s armbands by some teams as a show of support for the kind of inclusivity that Qatar does not support.

In the stands, fans of the Iran team who showed silent support for the protest movement roiling that country were made to stash their Persian flags, seen as symbols for freedom seekers against the current regime, or turn their shirts of support inside out.

Still, there were gestures. English players knelt. Iranian players did not sing the national anthem. And in the stands, some Iranian fans sang the Persian anthem, a sound of protest aimed at the country’s theocratic government and its latest crackdowns on freedom.

There were more problems outside the stadiums. Thousands of fans Monday found that their digital tickets had suddenly disappeared from their phones and could not be retrieved. That led to a crush of confusion and frustration before officials clumsily sorted out the mess at the stadium gates, partly by printing tickets and, in the end, letting people in without tickets to scan.

The tournament seemed most normal on the green grass of Khalifa International Stadium, the only one of the eight venues in and around Doha not constructed specifically for this event. (It was built in 1976 and renovated and expanded for the World Cup.)

England, a semifinalist four years ago, satiated the anxiety of its rabid fan base by crushing Iran, 6-2, powered by two goals from Bukayo Saka.

England scored three times in the first half, quickly sucking any suspense from the match and allowing people to wonder further just what everyone is doing in Qatar and how to best show disagreement with that decision.

One way, planned for months by a coalition of European soccer federations, was through rainbow-colored armbands for team captains. England’s Harry Kane was expected to be the first of many to take the field wearing one, emblazoned with the words “One Love” and designed to show support for minority groups, primarily the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality is a crime in Qatar.

But World Cup organizers took the additional step of announcing that such one-armed protests would result in a yellow card, and the teams, worried about the consequences, angrily backed down. Kane arrived on the field wearing a FIFA-approved blue one instead. It featured a heart and the words “No Discrimination.”

England did not let the occasion go gestureless. As it has the past couple of years in solidarity with protests after the killing of American George Floyd, players knelt before kickoff. The gesture has since been seen as a broad way to raise awareness for social justice issues.

The game was a potential stage for another form of protest, especially for Iran, amid a movement sparked by the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody. She was accused of violating Iran’s hijab law requiring covered hair and loose robes for women. Protests, pushing mostly for more freedom for women, have destabilized the country in the two months since.

Iran’s players made a point of not singing the country’s national anthem before the match.

More obvious gestures could be found in the crowd. Some brought the flag of Persia, viewed as a symbol of protest. The flag looks much like Iran’s current flag, with its bands of green, white and red. But today’s flag has an Islamic symbol and phrasing; the Persian flag has a lion and a sun.

One man unfurled the Persian flag before the match and was made to surrender it. Those with shirts depicting the flag or any other anti-Iran messages were not allowed inside unless they agreed to remove the shirt or turn it inside out. It was unclear who directed security to take those measures.

But it did not stop some in the crowd from singing the words to the Persian national anthem.

Still others missed it all, having been stuck outside the stadium with tickets that magically disappeared from their phones in the hours before the match. Many reached the workers holding scanners outside the security checkpoints and found they had no tickets to scan.

Lines backed up. Frustration grew. Volunteers were helpless. Extra security was called in. Many fans were directed to a nearby trailer marked “Ticket Resolution Point,” which had few resolutions but soon a heaving and anxious crowd of its own.

Eventually, security officials directed some people through security, inside the fenced ring and the plazas that surrounded the stadium. That got them closer to their goal, but they still could not enter the portals of the stadium without a scanned ticket. They were directed to more “ticket resolution” trailers, where growing lines of fans seethed as kickoff neared.

FIFA acknowledged the problem without explaining it.

“FIFA is working on solving the issue,” a statement read.

Among the many temporarily stranded was Calvin Stermer of California, who had six tickets for the match. They were linked to his Hayya card, a sort of online visa required by Qatar for foreign visitors to the World Cup. When he went to transfer them to friends Monday to display on their own personal devices, as instructed, they were gone.

Stermer was trying to see two games Monday — England-Iran in the afternoon and United States-Wales in the evening.

“I have paper tickets for USA, so I’m happy about that,” Stermer said.

At kickoff, security officials scrambled to allow people in, asking merely for the email confirmation for their tickets and directing them past the scanners. (Somehow, they still announced a precise attendance of 45,344.)

By then, everything felt rather normal. England was winning, fans were cheering and the World Cup had begun in earnest, with four matches a day for the next 11 days.

If only those fans who thought they might miss Monday’s first match entirely could have quenched their stress with a beer. But that is a different story of the World Cup.

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