Lip Service in Qatar

Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Mehdi Taremi (and their teammates) refuse to sing the Iranian national anthem before their World Cup match against England on November 21st in Qatar.

From now on when you google the phrase “lip service” you should by rights be taken directly to the video of the members of Iranian national soccer team making the least possible show of singing the Islamic Republic’s anthem before their World Cup soccer match against the USA last Tuesday.

As the camera moved down the line of players, most of their faces registered only a pained and reluctant mumble. The possible exception was the first to be seen in close-up—Mehdi Taremi, the talented striker who plays in Portugal’s premier league when he is not sporting the uniform of his native country. A cynic might say he has the most to lose, given his value on the international football/soccer market. But even he looked robotic during the anthem, and his stand against the opening anthem was heroic.

Several of Taremi’s teammates barely opened their mouths at all. Others let only an aggrieved, even frightened twitch worry their cheeks. Many eyes stared into space or were downcast. The Ayatollahs back in Iran could hardly have been impressed by these efforts.

The Iranian national team had opened the tournament by not singing the anthem before their November 21st match against England. The players remained in tight-lipped solidarity with the ongoing protests back in Iran in the wake of the death in the middle of September of the twenty-two-year-old woman Mahsa Amini after she had been beaten and taken into custody by the Morality Police for not wearing the hijab in public.

Iranian fanatics convinced of their God’s penchant for micromanagement could well have concluded that His wrath led to England’s 6-2 drubbing of their team.

After the loss, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in Qatar keeping a close eye on the team, threatened the players and their families back home with “violence and torture,” according to unnamed sources.

Before their next game against Wales on the 25th, the Iranian players mustered a patently unenthusiastic rendition of the anthem. Choruses of boos echoed around the stadium, not at the players, it seemed, but at the dark forces arrayed against them. God smiled and they beat the Welsh, two goals to none.

A few days later He opted for non-intervention—or Divine retribution—after another Iranian display of lip service. The single goal from Yankee Devil on November 29th put an end to Iran’s hopes of making it to the knock-out round for the first time in World Cup History.

Anthemic non-compliance was elevated to a symbol of political resistance by the Black Power Salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on their medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The “celebrated” sportscaster Brent Musberger called the two athletes “black-skinned stormtroopers.” Once back in the United Stated, the Olympians and their families were subject to death threats and other forms of abuse and discrimination.

More than half a century on, in the age of ever-proliferating cameras and the ubiquitous close-up, the subtle motion of the face can be scrutinized by the world in real-time and forever after in the archive of the internet. Acts of resistance can range from the Prince Harry’s partial boycott of “God Save the King” at his grandmother Queen Elizabeth’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, to Colin Kaepernick’s knee-taking during the Star-Spangled Banner before NFL games to protest endemic American racism.

A person in a military uniform Description automatically generated with low confidence

Prince Harry not singing the final lines of “God Save the King” at the Queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in September.

However unjust, being barred from professional football is a long way from being killed or having the soles of your feet flogged with wire cables—one of the many torture techniques of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

The uncertainty over whether Prince Harry was singing the British national anthem or not gets to the vexing problem of interpreting intent in performance. Except when protesting to the referee or flopping down onto the soccer stage (aka “the pitch”) and howling theatrically in pain after having their toes trodden, most soccer players are not committed vocalists.

Even players from the most equitable nations often don’t bother to sing. Many of those that do are obviously just going through the motions, moving the mouth but not the soul.

Take the Danish side before its match against Tunisia at the Qatar World Cup. Several of the players of this exemplary nation (yes, there are stains on their flag, e.g. rising anti-immigrant sentiment and the joining of George Bush’s Coalition of the Willing back in 2001), didn’t give much gusto to “Der er et yndigt land, Det star med brede bøge (There is a land we love with shady beech trees aspreading). Yet the mumblers and the mute among them would never be reviled as musical traitors.

The verdict might have been different if cutting-edge AI software had scanned their unimpassioned faces and measured these metrics against the manifest patriotic fervor of blond-bearded team captain and goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel. Still, those players remaining passive in the singing could rightly claim that they were focusing their mental powers on the game ahead.

Even Schmeichel and the other Danes who were belting out their anthem were felled by the final chromatic descent of their anthem, a fitting musical prelude to their poor tournament—last in Group D with but a single point; only Canada and host nation Qatar made a worse showing on the scoreboard.

By contrast, the opposing Tunisians lifted their voices in one of the tournament’s most rousing team efforts, but even some of their numbers were silent, either saving their energies for the soccer or judiciously recognizing their limitations as singers.

 

Evaluating any individual player’s patriotism on the basis of their vocal performance is difficult, probably impossible. Impassive miens by an entire team sends a clearer message, but after the Revolutionary Guard threats, the subsequent renditions by the Iranians against Wales and the USA are much harder to judge. After the silence of the first match’s anthem, an exaggerated display of patriotism might have been an even more obvious and effective critique of the regime and therefore subject to condemnation and retribution by the clerics. Perhaps solo auditions will be held back in Tehran. One can hear the Ayatollahs, dangling their cables in hand, demanding Taremi, and then each of his teammates, to “Do it again, with feeling.”

Compounding these hermeneutic pitfalls, the country is on its fourth national anthem, the present one adopted in 1990 after the death of Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. The English translation provided by Wikipedia is a jumble of tautologies (the sun rises in the east? No duh!) and the usual claims of despotic regimes to permanence:

Upwards on the horizon rises the Eastern Sun,
The light in the eyes of the believers in truth,
Bahman is the zenith of our faith.
Your message, O Imam, of independence, freedom, is imprinted on our souls.
Martyrs! Your clamors echo in the ears of time.
Enduring, continuing, and eternal.
The Islamic Republic of Iran!

The melody is diatonic and predominantly stepwise, its range modest and aggregable. There are no drunken swerves as in Star-Spangled Banner or suspect sensual slitherings as in the Danish hymn.

Wikipedia also claims that the Iranian anthem is the second shortest on the planet. It can be tossed off in a minuet or less, making it about half the length of the America’s obnoxious ode to itself.

The distinction of having the shortest anthem is claimed by Japan. Before their shocking (to some) take down of forlorn, former powerhouse Germany, the team’s rendition of “Kimigayo” (His Imperial Majesty’s Reign) might have been heard by many as poised and reverent, by others as merely dispassionate. But it could also have been mistaken as its own form of protest against the Japanese hymn’s militaristic tones and connotations. As always, it is not just the performance itself, but its broader context that must be taken into account. The difference between the Japanese side’s rendition of their national anthem and that of the Iranian’s before their game with the USA was, on the face of it, slight to non-existent.

However one hears and sees these confrontations with the accursed warhorses of nationalistic song, the Iranian players and their families must now face the music—and the lack of it.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com