Women. Life. Freedom.
The three words Iran’s Vafa Hakhamaneshi has been thinking about day and night for the last two weeks. He has been desperate to get on the scoresheet to unveil this message to India and the world. One can understand the desperation of the centre-back, whose last goal came in 2019 and whose primary job is to help keep clean sheets.
On Friday, Chennaiyin FC was locked goalless against East Bengal at the Salt Lake Stadium. Vafa, who was on a booking, took up his place for a Chennaiyin corner kick in the 69 th minute and rose high to head in his first goal for the club. When the ball went in, he ‘forgot everything’ that happened before.
He pulled up his jersey over his head to reveal the message: ‘Women. Life. Freedom.’
Vafa received a second yellow and was sent off for his gesture. FIFA’s rules state that a player can be cautioned for taking off his shirt or covering the head with a shirt during a goal celebration. Fortunately for Vafa, his goal turned out to be the match-clincher as his teammates saw out the win.
But for Vafa, the goal and the celebration meant more than just a win. He wanted to use this moment and the platform to highlight what was happening back in his home. “This celebration is about the situation in Iran,” he says. Iran is in turmoil with state-sponsored violence and discrimination against its citizens, especially women.
Women are not allowed to enter stadiums by the government, which contravenes the world football body’s criteria. There have been widespread calls from Iranian footballers and sports personalities to FIFA to suspend the national football federation and even ban Iran from this month’s World Cup in Qatar.
“I was only thinking about the celebration. For two weeks, I was waiting day and night for the moment: to score and get this message out. After I scored the goal, I forgot everything and only wanted to show the message,” says the 31-year-old.
“It [celebration] was a voice for my people from the outside. Everything in Iran is now blocked. The Internet and social media are blocked. The TV channels, I think, are not true now. They only speak about the government; the TV channels are controlled by the government. This was needed -- for people who live or work outside Iran to show a little bit about how the situation is in Iran and about this liberation,” says Vafa.
And his message has travelled far and wide over the last 24 hours. “I have received so many messages on Instagram, Whatsapp and Telegram. So many messages,” says Vafa. “I have gotten messages not only from Iran, but from Germany, Brazil, America, and India. They messaged me saying they protect me, that they are with me, and everybody now knows about the situation in Iran. So many famous people on social media in both Iran and other countries have received my message and they have put my message as their story on Instagram. This is a good way to show the situation in Iran.”
People in Iran are divided over whether Iran should play the World Cup, Vafa, however, wants to see their countrymen take up the issue on the biggest stage of them all. “This a good way to show everybody. The football World Cup is very famous, and everybody is looking at this stage. Last week, Esteghlal won the Iran Super Cup and decided not to celebrate in protest. I want the Iranian players to play in the World Cup and show everybody about the situation,” he says.
His manager Thomas Brdaric rallied behind his player after the match. “The red card is a pity. These are rules but you can’t close your eyes to these situations. It was a clear message for the whole world and what he did was for the people in his own country. It’s disappointing what’s happening there and I hope maybe that ISL and federation [AIFF] don’t close their eyes and switch on their heads and tolerate these situations,” Brdaric says.
On Saturday, the club posted a tweet ‘Together. Always.” with a picture of Brdaric and Vafa embracing each other as a sign of solidarity within the camp for the Iranian’s cause.
There is a sense of relief for Vafa after an overwhelmingly positive reaction to his cause from people back home and in Chennai. He says, “Everyone in Chennai and my team are supporting me after the game. The Indian people, not only Iranian people, sent me messages of support, staying with me, which is a very good feeling. I, now, stay with my family [CFC] in India.”
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