'This goal is for my people' - Vafa Hakhamaneshi sees red after message of solidarity with Iranian protesters

Vipin Pawar/Focus Sports/ ISL

Vafa Hakhamaneshi had been planning this for weeks. An Iranian footballer playing for the Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC, Hakhamaneshi had been growing increasingly disturbed by what was going on in his homeland. When he rose high to score his team's winner against East Bengal, he knew this was the time. Running straight to the camera behind the goal, he lifted his shirt above his head to show a simple message: #WOMEN #LIFE #FREEDOM. Just to reinforce that the message came straight from him, he ended it with '11:11' - a number he considers part of his personal brand (as evidenced by the bios on his socials).

"This goal [he scored] is for my people, this message is only for making my people's voice heard, it's so important," he tells ESPN from his hotel room in Kolkata, soon after the match. "When I posted a story on my Instagram about Iran, a lot of Indians asked me 'what happened in Iran?' This message, this goal, is to tell the Indian people what is happening in Iran."

On scoring and celebrating the way he did, he received a yellow card - as dictated by FIFA rules. It was his second of the game, which meant he was sent off. But that doesn't matter to him, not nearly as much as the message he wanted to send.

"I had two weeks to think about this celebration. I didn't have another choice. I didn't forget that I had gotten a first yellow card, or [that he will get a second yellow for the celebration], but I needed to share this message with everybody."

"There is a bit of a problem in Iran, between the people and the government," he says. "The internet and everything is blocked. My people need help. Their voice... every country should hear it."

He pauses before repeating, "Now is not a good situation in Iran - with the people, the police, and the army..."

"[I know] this is a very strong message.... but I'm not even scared of this." Vafa Hakhamaneshi

The protests in Iran were sparked by the September 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country's morality police over her clothing -- and her death has seen women removing their mandatory hijabs in public. The demonstrations have drawn school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in over 100 cities.

The crackdown on these protests have been brutal. Current national team superstar Sardar Azmoun (currently of Bayer Leverkusen) and retired legends Ali Daei and Ali Karimi have spoken up in support of the protesters, despite the threat of institutional backlash.

"[I know] this is a very strong message.... but I'm not even scared of this," says Hakhamaneshi.

"The problems are happening only in some big cities," he says, before adding a reassuring, "my family is safe."

"Everyone was so angry after the death of [Mahsa Amini], but [the deaths] didn't stop there," he says. Pausing often to make his point clear, he adds, "Now... I don't know how many people have died in Iran..."

At a time when football's governing body is stressing the importance of separating politics from sport, it's of material significance that footballers insist on speaking up. Hakhamaneshi is clear that speaking up is the right thing to do, the only thing to do.

"Now is the time to speak, this message is from everybody in Iran - women and everyone."