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Women’s protests overshadow Iran’s World Cup loss

Source image: https://apnews.com/article/womens-soccer-iran-world-cup-sports-4a00ac80c2527fa596943a9c0b62cb53

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Iran’s players didn’t sing their national anthem and didn’t celebrate their goals. In the stands, many Iranian fans showed solidarity with the protest movement that has roiled the country for months.

Iran’s World Cup opener Monday against England was not just about soccer, but the political struggles gripping the Islamic Republic. And for some Iranian women, barred from attending men’s soccer matches at home, it was a precious first chance to see the national team live.

“Do you know how painful it is to be the biggest football fan and never go to a match in 34 years?” said Afsani, a 34-year-old beekeeper from Tehran, who traveled to Qatar to watch the men’s team for the first time. She said she wept when she entered the Khalifa International Stadium.

Like other Iran fans, Afsani declined to give her last name for fear of government reprisals.

Iran lost 6-2 to a superior England team, but the result wasn’t the most important to Mayram, a 35-year-old Tehran resident who also watched her first soccer match live. She was disappointed that the players didn’t show more overt solidarity with the protests at home.

“You have girls being killed in the street,” she said. “It’s hard to say but this is not a happy occasion. It is really sad.”

Iran is competing in the World Cup amid a violent crackdown on a major women’s protest movement that has resulted in the deaths of at least 419 people, according Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.

The unrest was spurred by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police. It first focused on the state-mandated hijab, or headscarf, for women, but has since morphed into one of the most serious threats to the Islamic Republic since the chaotic years following its founding.

Many Iran fans in Doha wore T-shirts and waved signs with the mantra of the uprising — “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Others wore jerseys bearing the names of female protesters killed by Iranian security forces in recent weeks.

In the 22nd minute of the match — a reference to Amini’s age when she died — some fans chanted her name, though the refrain quickly faded out and was replaced by “Iran.”

Other fans dressed in conservative black chadors and hijabs in the color of the Iranian flag cheered loudly for their national team. Many of them declined to speak about the political situation, saying it was not relevant to them.

Before international matches, Iran’s players usually sing the national anthem with the right hands on their heart. On Monday they stood silently, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, prompting Iran’s state TV to cut from a close-up of the players’ faces to a wide shot of the pitch. During the match, the players didn’t celebrate their two goals, something that has become common in Iranian league matches since the protests began.

The question of whether to root for the national team has divided Iranians. Many now view support for the Iranian team as a betrayal of the young women and men who have risked their lives in the streets.

“The protest movement has overshadowed the football,” said Kamran, a linguistics professor who lives in the verdant northern province of Mazandaran. “I want Iran to lose these three games.”

Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, is representative of the country’s people and not its ruling Shiite clerics. The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, has been vocal about the protests online. He was on the bench during the match, to the dismay of fans who said they were looking to him to make a gesture of protest on the pitch. Two former soccer stars have even been arrested for backing the movement.

Ali Jassim, a 14-year-old Iranian fan, said he was sure the political crisis was affecting the team’s performance, as England went up 3-0 at half-time.

“I don’t know how they can focus in a stadium full of so many people who want them to fail, ” he said.

The Iranian government has tried to encourage citizens to support their team against Iran’s traditional enemies. Iran plays the United States on Nov. 29 — a contentious showdown that last occurred at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Observers note that the players are likely facing government pressure not to side with the protests. Already, Iranian athletes have drawn enormous scrutiny. When Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed in South Korea without wearing her country’s mandatory headscarf, she became a lighting rod of the protest movement.

“At the end of the day, I want the players to achieve their dreams,” said Mariam, a 27-year-old sports fan and international relations student who traveled to Doha from Tehran to watch her first men’s soccer match live. “It’s not their fault our society is so polarized.”

Mariam said a big achievement for the women protesting at home would be the right to choose whether to wear the hijab.

“But after that, women will go for their right to be in stadiums,” she said.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Source: https://apnews.com/article/womens-soccer-iran-world-cup-sports-4a00ac80c2527fa596943a9c0b62cb53

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Report: NWSL to expand in Boston, Utah and California

The National Women’s Soccer League is close to expanding by three teams, which will be in Boston, Utah and the San Francisco area, according to a Friday report in the Wall Street Journal.

The women’s pro league previously indicated it would add at least two teams by 2024. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that the franchises in northern California and Utah are set to start play next year, with Boston to join at a later date.

The NWSL did not confirm the report in a statement Saturday to The Associated Press, saying: “We remain engaged in our expansion process and are excited about our prospects. When we have news to share, we will do so.”

The NWSL has 12 teams, after Angel City in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave joined the league last year.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Boston and Bay Area groups will pay about $50 million in franchise fees. The Utah team will pay a reduced fee because of a previous agreement struck when the Utah Royals folded in the 2020 season.

Before the NWSL draft earlier this month, league commissioner Jessica Berman said it would be “somewhere between days and months, more like weeks, when we’ll be in a position to share information” about an expansion.

“What I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us,” she added.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Former MVP Candace Parker to sign with champion Aces

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former two-time MVP Candace Parker announced on social media Saturday that she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

Parker spent the past two seasons playing for her hometown Sky, leading Chicago to the WNBA championship in 2021. She also won the 2016 title playing for the Los Angeles Sparks.

She posted on Instagram that Chicago would always be her home, but “my family’s home is on the west coast.

“To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday, and the Aces can’t comment until then.

Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward/center, adds to an already loaded lineup that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, who also won the league’s top award in 2020. Wilson also was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Chelsea Gray was MVP of the WNBA Finals and Kelsey Plum MVP of the All-Star Game. Wilson, Plum and Jackie Young were All-Star starters.

Parker and Gray were teammates on Los Angeles’ 2016 title team.

The Aces traded one of their key pieces, two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, to the Sparks on Jan. 21, creating speculation Las Vegas was creating salary cap room to sign a big-name player.

Parker, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2016 Finals MVP, certainly fits that bill. Even at 36 last season, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Sky.

“Candace has done so much for our franchise in her time here,” Chicago coach and general manager James Wade said in a statement. “I understand her reasons for wanting to be closer with her immediate family. We wish her nothing but the best. She will always be a part of the Sky family. We will celebrate her time here as she deserves.”

Losing her is a big blow to the Sky, who made the semifinals in last season’s playoffs before losing in five games to the Connecticut Sun. Kahleah Copper is the only starter under contract for next season, so the Sky could head into a rebuild.

“I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to win a championship in my hometown and parade down the same streets I watched the Bulls parade down as a young girl first falling in love with the game of basketball,” Parker posted.

Parker joins the Aces at a time the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said it wanted that organization investigated regarding allegations that Hamby made after being traded. She posted on Instagram she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” because she is pregnant with her second child.

The Aces still have not commented on Hamby’s allegations.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Estrada, Hofstra end No. 18 Charleston’s 20-game win streak

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — This season, Hofstra has been a one-man show. This time, Aaron Estrada had some help as the Pride ended the nation’s longest winning streak.

Estrada scored 25 points, but just two in the second half, while Darlinestone Dubar added 18 as Hofstra had four players in double figures to knock off No. 18 College of Charleston 85-81 on Saturday — ending the Cougars’ 20-game win streak.

“That’s a really big for our program,” Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton said. “To beat a nationally ranked team on their home court when they’ve got it rolling like they do speaks volumes about our kids.”

Claxton saw a team effort to take down the hottest team in the country.

“It wasn’t just Aaron,” Claxton said. “He had a great first half, but we had other guys step up and make baskets or get rebounds when we really needed them.”

The loss ended Charleston’s spotless run that began after losing to then-top-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 11.

Hofstra, the CAA’s leader in field-goal shooting, used that to move past Charleston in the second half as it made 18 of 32 attempts. The Pride led 76-69 with 6:10 to play before the Cougars cut it to two points on Ryan Larson’s foul shots with 2:02 to play.

But Charleston managed just two free throws after that and missed all four 3-pointers they tried.

This is the second straight season the Pride have beaten a Top 25 team. A year ago, Hofstra defeated then No. 24 Arkansas 89-81. The Pride’s only other victory against a Top 25 team came against Southern Illinois in 1976.

Hofstra (15-8, 8-2 Colonial Athletic Association) beat the Cougars (21-2, 9-1) at their own game — 3-point shooting. The Pride were 11 of 22 from 3-point range and overall shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half.

Estrada, who had 23 points in the opening half, shredded the Cougars defense at will. Estrada was 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Estrada is a great player, hit a bunch of tough shots, especially in the first half,” Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said. “Hofstra is a very, very talented team. It’s not just Estrada. They were better than us tonight.”

Then Estrada took over. The CAA’s leading scorer at 21.1 points a game scored 16 of the next 24 points for the Pride, including four 3-pointers.

Ante Brzovic’s dunk at the buzzer gave the Cougars a 46-44 advantage at halftime.

Tyler Thomas had 17 points and eight rebounds for Hofstra.

Brzovic finished with 18 points to lead the Cougars.

BIG PICTURE

Hofstra: The Pride are on a roll in 2023. winning seven of their past eight games, including three in a row.

College of Charleston: The Cougars chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament at-large bid took a major blow with the loss to the Pride. Despite having the nation’s longest win streak for three months, Charleston will most likely have to win the CAA Tournament in March to advance to the NCAAs.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Cougars’ 20-game win streak wasn’t the only streak to end on Saturday. College of Charleston played 14 of its first 23 games at TD Arena to start the season and were a perfect 13-0 at home before facing the Pride. Charleston’s 13-game home win streak included three wins in the Charleston Classic. The Cougars became the first mid-major program to win the ESPN event, beating Virginia Tech 77-75 in the championship game. Charleston will finish the season playing four of their final eight games on the road.

POLL POSITION

Charleston’s first loss in nearly three months might drop the Cougars from the national rankings. They have been part of the last four rankings, entering at No. 23 before reaching No. 18 this past week.

UP NEXT

Hofstra returns home to play Towson on Thursday night.

College of Charleston starts a two-game road trip at Drexel on Thursday night.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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