Anti-government protesters in Iran celebrated their team's exit from the World Cup early Wednesday as another blow to the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, though the jubilation was soon interrupted by gunfire. Human rights activists say 27-year-old Mehran Samak was shot dead after honking his car horn in the coastal city of Bandar Anzali, northwest of Tehran. He "was targeted directly and shot in the head by security forces" following the Iranian team's loss to the US, according to the Norway-based Iran Human Rights group. A player on the Iranian team, Saeid Ezatolahi, a Bandar Anzali native, later revealed Samak was his "childhood teammate," per the Guardian.
"The news of your passing set fire to my heart," Ezatolahi wrote on social media, where he shared a photo of the pair as children. "Some day the masks will fall, the truth will be laid bare," he added, per the Guardian. "This is not what our youth deserve. This is not what our nation deserves." The Iranian team did not sing the national anthem ahead of their first World Cup match, which many saw as a sign of support for the protesters. The team did sing in later matches, however, under what was reported to be intense pressure from Iranian authorities. The families of the players were threatened with "violence and torture," a source told CNN.
Still, many Iranian protesters argued the team did not represent the people, but rather the country's authoritarian regime. "This is not my national team. It is not the melli team, it is the mullahs' team," a 21-year-old woman told the Guardian. Celebrations erupted in various cities, including Tehran, per the BBC. Kurdish human rights group Hengaw says at least 30 people were shot and wounded in Marivan, Sanandaj, Kermanshah, Saqqez, Ilam and Bukan. Iran Human Rights says at least 448 people have been killed during the anti-government protests that erupted 10 weeks ago, including 60 children. More than 18,000 others have reportedly been arrested, some of whom face execution. (Read more Iran stories.)