An Iranian beach soccer player was Monday applauded on social media but risked sanctions at home after an apparent gesture at an international tournament in solidarity with the anti-regime protest movement.
The Iranian team on Sunday won the Emirates Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup in Dubai 2-1 against Brazil thanks to a goal from Saeed Piramoun.
Rather than celebrating his strike, Piramoun stopped and made a clear scissor-like gesture above his head with his fingers to mimic cutting his hair, according to several videos posted on social media.
Hair cutting, in and outside Iran, has become a symbol of solidarity with ongoing protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini after her arrest by morality police in mid-September for allegedly flouting strict dress rules for women.
The beach soccer team had already been under scrutiny after apparently not singing the Iranian national anthem before their semi-final, images showed.
That gesture prompted state television to cut the live-stream, TV channels based outside Iran said.
And the team did not celebrate when awarded the cup for winning the title on Sunday, instead standing sternly with their arms crossed.
Piramoun's haircut gesture immediately prompted a cascade of memes on social media, where the player was applauded for his courage.
"This game and this win may be forgotten, but this gesture cannot be forgotten," tweeted former Iranian international player Mehrdad Pooladi. "More important than the championship was the honour you showed."
"An Iranian national team with honour," tweeted former Iranian footballer and ex-Bayern Munich star Ali Karimi. An impassioned supporter of the protests, he also posted a video of Piramoun's gesture.
Without naming Piramoun, Iran's football federation said it would discipline all those deemed to have failed to keep politics away from the playing field.
"Based on the regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran and FIFA regarding avoiding political behaviour in sport, those who have not followed professional and sporting ethics must be treated in accordance with the rules," it said in a statement.
Normally Iranian sports teams who are victorious abroad are given heroes' welcomes at airports full of TV crews.
But images posted online by TV channels outside Iran showed frustrated journalists being denied access by security to the terminal.
The Iran Wire website said that uniformed forces had taken the players away immediately after they exited the airport, and that some may have been taken to the football federation.
The newspaper 'Iran', a state-run daily, criticised the Emirati police for taking "no measure" against spectators who, it reported, had chanted "anti-Islamic republic" slogans after the match.
Dubai is home to a major community of Iranian exiles, and in September Iran welcomed back the UAE ambassador after a six-year downgrading of ties.
But the paper said: "If this country (UAE) does not react appropriately, it will have to accept the consequences of this action that is hostile to Iran."
Sports has become a hugely sensitive arena in the protests, especially ahead of Iran's participation in this year's football World Cup in Qatar.
Sports climber Elnaz Rekabi caused a sensation last month when she climbed without a headscarf – obligatory for all Iranian women even while competing abroad – at a competition in South Korea.
On her return to Iran she apologised and said the hijab had fallen off by accident. But activists argued her gesture was deliberate and she had been pressured by the authorities into expressing regret.
Earlier this month, top Tehran football side Esteghlal also refused to celebrate after winning the Iranian Super Cup with its footballer Siavash Yazdani in a post match interview dedicating the victory to "women and those who lost loved ones".
Making no reference to the controversy, President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday congratulated the beach soccer team for showing "an example of a brilliant and strong Iran on the international arena."