Later this afternoon, the USA plays Iran in the FIFA World Cup, and the match is already mired in controversy with Iran calling for the U.S. to be effectively disqualified from the World Cup.
It began over the weekend when the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) briefly posted on social media the Iranian flag without the Islamic Republic symbol. USSF stated it did so in solidarity with the women of Iran, and all those who have taken to the streets in demonstration after the killing of Masha Amini while in police custody. Masha’s death on September 16th sparked a series of ongoing, nationwide protests spread across social class, gender, and schooling.
Unsurprisingly, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blames the U.S. and Israel for much of the civil unrest stating publicly that the demonstrations are a foreign effort aimed at destabilizing Iran. There is no evidence to support these allegations. Now the Iranian government is arguing the move by the USSF to briefly remove the Islamic Republic emblem is akin to removing the name of God from their national flag and in violation of the FIFA charter as it offends the “dignity or integrity of a country.”
The latter allegation feels particularly ironic given the UN reports more than 40 people have been killed in Iran during the last week, including two teenagers, adding to the over 450 protestors who have been killed since September—many of them minors—and 18,000 arrested.
It might be easy to frame the game today as politically charged with players from both sides deeply aligned with and championing their nation’s values. However, the Iranian national soccer team has, on their own, demonstrated solidarity with the protestors by refusing to sing the Iranian national anthem before the World Cup opener. The captain of the Iranian team confirmed as much stating, “We have to accept that the conditions in our country are not right and our people are not happy. We are here, but it does not mean that we should not be their voice or we should not respect them.”
Unfortunately, the team reversed course and sang the anthem in later games though it has been suggested they were coerced to do so following threats by their government as political dissent is considered a crime punishable by death.
Off the field, the true collision and contest are occurring in the geopolitical field. Recently, Khamenei called President Biden a “poor, demented man,” amidst the administration signaling it is still interested in diplomacy and pursuing a nuclear deal despite evidence Iran is looking to Russia to help bolster its nuclear program. This assistance comes alongside an expanding partnership between Iran and Russia with Iran sending drones and other equipment to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
With tensions between the two nations so high off the field, it will be worth watching the game to see how the play unfolds. Today marks only the second time the two soccer teams have faced off with one another. The last time was in 1998, when things were different and then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami sought to improve relations with the U.S. and the world. That is true no longer.
I, like many, will be supporting Team USA. Yet, even as we wave our Star-Spangled Banners and hope for victory, remember to keep heart with the thousands of women and men risking their lives in Iran for the chance and hope of freedom. For that is a goal we should all be cheering for.