Why are Iran's players under more scrutiny than any other World Cup team?

Sardar Azmoun took to Instagram on Sunday after his Iran team defeated Uruguay 1-0 in a friendly "I am not supposed to speak out because of the restrictive laws imposed on the national team... I'm aware that I risk being sent home, but I can't take it any longer! You will never be able to get this off your mind. You should be ashamed! You kill quickly. Iranian women, long live!"

The reference was obvious. Azmoun, like many Iranians, was outraged by the police response to the protests that erupted across Iran, from Tehran to the smallest rural villages, in the aftermath of Mahsa Amini's death in custody after being apprehended by the so-called "morality police." She was 22 years old. Her brother, who was with her when she was arrested, said she was told she wasn't wearing her hijab, or headscarf, properly.

Azmoun, who has over 5 million followers on Instagram, saw his post go viral almost immediately. As my colleague Mark Ogden reported last week, it poured gasoline on the fire of those seeking change in a country – and a national team – already on edge and playing in sheltered, almost surreal conditions. On Monday night, when Iran drew 1-1 with Senegal in another friendly, the Iranian players made a point of walking out in black jackets before kickoff, which many interpreted as a protest.

The 27-year-old forward, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga, was hailed as a hero both at home and throughout the Iranian diaspora. His post was later removed, and his account was eventually deleted. The account reappeared on Wednesday, and Azmoun appeared to have changed his tune.

"I have to apologize to the national team players because I irritated my dear friends, and some supporters even insulted the national team," he wrote. "This was unjust in any way, and it was my fault. I blame myself and am ashamed in front of all the members of the national team and technical staff who disrupted the team's order and peace."

What's going on? We don't know, and many people will draw their own conclusions. What is undeniable is that those who insist that politics have no place in sports are somewhere between denial and the hole in which ostriches stick their heads. It is already here and has been for quite some time. Simply put, few endeavors attract as much attention or provide as large a stage as football, particularly international football. Nothing is more important than the World Cup, in which Iran will compete in November in Qatar alongside the United States, England, and Wales.

What happens when Iran kicks off their World Cup campaign against England on November 21 is the elephant in the room. Assuming Azmoun and his teammates haven't suddenly changed their minds (he was one of only two who voiced their opinions so clearly on social media, but many others blacked out their profiles in solidarity), what will they do when they take the field in front of billions of people around the world?

And, if the protests aren't put down – you hope not through vicious government repression, but through greater understanding, tolerance, and respect for women's rights – how will the government react? What does the host country, Qatar, do as a neighbor and historically close ally of Iran? And, last but not least, how will FIFA react?

Let's start with the last two because they're the most straightforward. Qatar, like Iran, is a Muslim country ruled by a royal family that has come under fire for human rights violations, particularly regarding LGBTQ issues and the rights of migrant workers. But, unlike in Iran, there are no "morality police" in Qatar, and Muslim women are not required to wear headscarves (though many do so by choice or custom). Iran is unable to compel Qatar to do anything, and even less so while the entire world is watching, and it has pledged to be welcoming and inclusive (at least for the duration of the tournament).

FIFA has statutes prohibiting political, religious, or personal slogans, messages, or actions. However, as societal mores have changed, what was once a strict stance has softened. When Norway and Germany displayed a human rights message aimed squarely at Qatar a year ago, FIFA refused to take action, stating that they "believe in freedom of expression and the power of football as a force for good." When players began kneeling or showing support for protesters in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, FIFA president Gianni Infantino stated that the players should be met with "applause, not punishment."

Add to that the fact that the captains of nine European countries will be wearing armbands with a rainbow flag and the message "One Love" during the World Cup, and it's difficult to see action being taken. (While the armbands do not explicitly condemn Qatar's treatment of migrant workers or the safety of LGBTQ communities, this news release from the Football Association in England leaves little doubt about the message.)

As a result, a huge question mark hangs over the players and the Iranian government. Coach Carlos Queiroz has called up 27 players for the last two friendlies, with 16 currently playing club football outside of Iran and a further seven having played abroad at some point in their careers. As a result, it's not surprising that many people identify with the protesters and their calls for women's rights: they have firsthand knowledge of another way of life. And this, combined with the massive popularity of "Team Melli" (the Iranian national side) and the massive platform it provides, makes them a potential threat to the Iranian regime's more conservative elements.

On the one hand, the vast majority of them have family, friends, and business interests in Iran and may face repercussions if they take a public stand in Qatar. On the other hand, it could be the tipping point for a more equitable, less oppressive society for women, and they may never have such a public platform again. These are the challenges that Team Melli faces six weeks after the World Cup. Don't tell them that politics and social media have no place in football. That ship has long since sailed.