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.
The players returned to Iran 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.
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.
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.