AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Geopolitical tensions and questions of human rights violations and protests in Iran will loom large when the Iranian and U.S. soccer teams face off Tuesday in one of the most anticipated games — and biggest spectacles — of the World Cup tournament playing out in Qatar.
If Iran’s most recent match is any indication, the heated political divide among fans of “Team Melli” who have traveled to the tournament threatens to take center stage at the game, where security is expected to be tight.
The stakes on the pitch are just as high as they are off it. The U.S., and likely Iran as well, needs a win to have any hope of avoiding a dispiriting early exit from the monthlong tournament and advancing to the round of knockout matches.
Iran’s divisions were on display Friday as more than 40,000 fans gathered at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium in a sold-out match against Wales. Some fans supporting the Iranian government harassed those protesting it inside the stadium, according to The Associated Press. Security guards reportedly seized flags, T-shirts and other items from fans expressing support for the protest movement gripping Iran. The demonstrations have sparked severe government crackdowns in the Islamic republic in recent months.
Iran’s eventual 2-0 win over Wales on Friday electrified but failed to unify its supporters across the stadium. Iranian fans erupted into competing chants.
Many fans used the match as a platform to protest the Iranian regime by wearing T-shirts, painting their faces and waving the Iranian flag without the Islamic republic emblem in a symbolic rejection of the regime.
PHOTOS: Politics on the pitch as U.S., Iran gird for World Cup showdown
Others carried “I love Iran” flags, wore T-shirts with the image of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanted “the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Despite Iran’s win over Wales, tensions among its fans ran high. Protests are tied to the arrest and death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 while in the custody of Iran’s dreaded morality police. Ms. Amini was reportedly arrested for not properly wearing her hijab, or Islamic head covering. Since her death, protests have raged in several cities across Iran against Ayatollah Khamenei and the regime.
Iranian soccer fans in Qatar said what began as an issue about the regime’s enforcement of a strict dress code for women evolved into a full-blown movement for women’s right to choose how they live in Iran and beyond. The protesters’ rallying cry: “Women, Life, Freedom!”
“Whether that choice of living is related to a dress, who they want to be with, who they want their partners to be, where they want to study, what they want to do, what they want to eat, what they want to drink — it’s all these tiny choices that make up the human experience, and we have been neglected of these decisions our entire life,” said a 21-year-old woman at Friday’s match.
The woman, who identified herself as a university student from Tehran but was unwilling to share her name out of fear of retaliation, said, “I am telling all of my foreign friends that this is not a fight for using a hijab or what women are wearing. Women are leading this revolution for their choice of living.”
Born and raised in Tehran, the woman also spoke openly about division among Iranians.
“The people of Iran are considered to be two groups at the moment: those who support the Women, Life, Freedom movement and those who do not,” she said, and “the [Iranian] regime had sent upwards of 5,000 of its supporters free of charge to the World Cup to show support for the regime.”
Security guards stopped some fans at the Iran-Wales match from bringing Persian pre-revolutionary flags into the stadium. Some flags were ripped from their hands by pro-government Iran fans, who also shouted insults at those wearing T-shirts supporting the protests.
Caught up in the drama
Iran’s players have been swept up in the political drama as well.
Unlike in their first match against England, the Iranian soccer players sang along Friday to their national anthem before the match while some fans in the stadium wept, whistled and booed. The national soccer team has reportedly come under close scrutiny by Iranian authorities for any statements or gestures about the protests in the Islamic republic.
Many Iranian fans at the match wanted to focus solely on soccer rather than politics. Iman, a tour guide leading fans from Iran, said he preferred to keep the politics out of soccer.
“We are just here to focus on the match and unity between nations,” he said.
Mohammed Yadegari, a journalism and media professor at the University of Tehran, said, “Soccer is for entertainment and for bringing together national energy. It is not a good place for heavy political acts. It should be like Germany, who covered their face but did nothing more.”
In another prominent political protest at the Cup, German players covered their mouths for a pregame portrait to dramatize their unhappiness with a ban by FIFA organizers on the wearing of “OneLove” armbands in support of gay rights. Activists have sharply criticized Qatar’s record on gender rights, civil liberties and the treatment of migrant workers ever since the small Arab country was named as host to one of the world’s most-watched sports spectacles.
The U.S.-Iran match will unquestionably bring discussion about the history of bilateral tensions dating back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the Biden administration’s vocal support for Iranian protesters in the streets today.
The United States reestablished economic sanctions against Iran in 2018 after the Trump administration repudiated the 2015 international nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.
The political friction between the U.S. and Iran burst into the open in Qatar over the weekend.
The U.S. Soccer Federation, which manages the U.S. national team, temporarily displayed the Iranian flag on its social media sites without the emblem of the Islamic republic. American officials said Sunday that the emblem was removed to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” The post was deleted after 24 hours.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter apologized Monday for the move, CNN reported, but Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency called for the American team’s ouster. It noted that FIFA officials implored all teams to keep politics out of the tournament.
“By posting a distorted image of the flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran on its official account, the U.S. football team breached the [FIFA] charter, for which a 10-game suspension is the appropriate penalty,” Tasnim said Sunday on its English-language Twitter account. “Team USA should be kicked out of the World Cup 2022.”
A legal adviser for Iran’s football federation said FIFA’s morality committee would take up the matter. The emblem stands for the Islamic saying “There is no god but God.”
“They must be held responsible,” Safia Allah Faghanpour said, according to ESPN. “Obviously, they want to affect Iran’s performance against the U.S. by doing this.”
A State Department spokesperson told CNN that the Biden administration didn’t coordinate with U.S. Soccer about the gesture.
“We look forward to a peaceful and competitive match on the field,” the spokesperson told the network. “The United States continues to find ways to support the Iranian people in the face of state-sponsored violence against women and a brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters.”
But the politics of the match seem inescapable.
“It’s never just a game. World Cup 2022 has been political from the get-go, be it over its location to the geopolitical conflicts behind each national match-up,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow with the think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely tracks Iran.
“How both the state and the street [in Iran] will spin and interpret losses and wins in this World Cup, particularly against America, will be telling,” he said in an interview. “On the one hand, the regime is likely to use any win against the U.S. as a prop in their anti-American rhetoric and feel buoyed to crack down harder on protests. Conversely, a win might put wind beneath the wings of Iranian protestors who have been protesting bravely … for over two and half months against the Islamic Republic.”
• Matt Delaney and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report from Washington.