Footballer's funeral kicks off protests

 Dubbed ‘The Legend’ by Iranians, Nasser Hajazi, Iran’s best defender but also a major symbol of opposition to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government, died on May 23. His massive public funeral gave anti-government Iranians a rare chance to speak out in public.   


A fan waves a photo of the defender, Nasser Hejazi, at he entrance to Azadi Stadium in Tehran


In the 1970s, Nasser Hejazi was considered to be one of the best defenders in the world. He was selected 62 times for the Iranian national team and played for many of the largest clubs in the country, including Tehran’s Esteghlal FC, where he continued to work as a trainer. In 2000, he was named the 20th century’s second best defender in Asia by the Asian Football Federation.


An extremely popular figure, Nasser Ajezi made a brief foray into politics in 2005 by attempting to run for president as an independent candidate, but the authorities blocked his candidacy. Ever since then he spoke out against the government.


In 2009, aged 60, he discovered that he had contracted lung cancer. Up until his death on May 23, his numerous fans visited him at his hospital bed.


'Hejazi, our hero, you spoke for the people'; 'Hossein, Hossein (Moussavi)' and 'Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it's your turn Khameni!' Posted on YouTube.


The day after he passed away, President Ahmadnejad expressed his ‘deep condolences’ to the Iranian people. But that didn’t stop the thousand of fans gathered in Tehran’s Azadi stadium for the funeral on Wednesday from turning their sorrow into anger towards the government.

"He was one on the most popular personalities in Iran because he dared to criticise the government"

Milad took part in Hajazi ‘s funeral in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium last week.


I arrived in the Azadi Stadium around 11am. Several plainclothes police officers and anti-riot units had been deployed. Tens of thousands of people entered the stadium for the official ceremony. People began chanting slogans such as ‘Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people.’ They were referring to Hejazi’s harsh criticism of Ahmadinejad’s handling of economic policy. [In April 2011, the ex-footballer spoke out angrily about the unfair distribution of wealth and budgetary restrictions which most impacted the poorest.] Our chants were clearly anti-government slogans.


The crowd shouts "Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning" and "Mr Nasser, rise up, your people can't stand it anymore". At 1m38 a group of women enter the stadium. Posted on YouTube.



For the first time, a group of more than a thousand women were allowed to enter the stadium. That’s rather ironic: they have been asking for years to be able to come to the matches, but they were only allowed to enter for the funeral of ‘The Legend’


“The authorities were in such a hurry that they nearly buried the body before the family arrived”


When the security forces realised that they were losing control of the situation, they took the body from the stadium to the Behsht Zahra cemetery whilst tens of thousands of people followed the cortege. I was unable to go, but people who were there told me that the authorities were in such a hurry that they nearly buried the body before the family arrived.

In the cemetery, people started shouting slogans against the regime, like ‘Mubarak, Bin Ali, now it’s your turn Khameni!’ or ‘Hejazi, our true hero!’ [According to another Observer who was there, the security forces tried to beat and arrest several people, but the crowd was too large to be silenced.]


Hejazi was not only a legend for Esteghlal FC fans but for all Iranian football fans. Because he dared to criticise the government, he was one of the most popular personalities of Iran. If the Guardian Council of the Constitution had accepted his presidential candidacy, I think there is a good chance that he would have won. Iranians liked the fact that he had no ties to political parties, but that is also exactly why his candidacy was rejected.”




In the stadium, the corwd shout 'Shame on you!'  Posted on YouTube.


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Post written in collaboration with Ségolène Malterre, journalist FRANCE 24.