The funeral of a famous Iranian soccer player in Tehran’s Azadi stadium turned Tuesday into a mass protest against the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, according to an Iranian soccer fan who participated in the protest.
A fan waves a photo of the defender, Nasser Hejazi, at he entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran (Source: France 24)
Writing on the website of France 24, the soccer fan identified only as Milad said that tens of thousands attended the funeral ceremony for Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender and outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Milad said in a rare occurrence some 1,000 women were allowed to be present during the ceremony. Iran bans women from stadiums in accordance with its strict segregation of genders in public places.
Mourners chanted “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” in a reference to Mr. Hejazi’s criticism of the Iranian president’s economic policies. Mr. Hejazi took Mr. Ahmadinejad in April publiclyto task for Iran’s gaping income difference and budgetary measure which hit the poorest the hardest.
The mourners also shouted "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore".
Iran has largely been spared the kind of mass anti-government protests sweeping other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. Iranian authorities briefly suspended professional soccer matches in February to prevent the soccer pitch from becoming an opposition rallying point during celebrations of the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Miladi said the anti-government chants prompted authorities to bury Mr. Hejazi’s body as quickly as possible. Security forces took Mr. Hejazi’s body shortly after the chanting began to Tehran’s famous Behsht Zahra cemetery with tens of thousands following the body to its burial place, he reported.
“The authorities were in such a hurry that they nearly buried the body before the family arrived,” he said.
Mourners in the cemetery shouted “Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it’s your turn Khameni!” in reference to ousted Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abedine Ben Ali and Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. Hejazi was 62 when he died earlier this week of lung cancer. He played 62 times for Iran’s national team as well as for crowned Teheran club Esteghlal FC. He was named in 2000 the 20th century’s second best defender by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Mr. Hejazi tried to run for president as an independent candidate in Iran’s 2005 elections, but was forced by authorities to withdraw.“Our chants were clearly anti-government slogans,” Miladi wrote.